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Saturday, 12 October 2013


At 32 Mabel Gurney, a niece of my great great grandmother Emma Salter née Gurney, seemed to be following the familiar dutiful path of the youngest girl child, remaining unmarried to care for her widowed mother. Her father Henry Gurney, a timber merchant in Cheltenham, died there in 1883 when Mabel was only 14.

Henry Gurney (1818-1883)

At first Mabel and her mother Phebe lived with Mabel’s eldest brother Walter and his family. But in 1901 they were on their own, mother and daughter with a single servant, and I leapt to the conclusion that Mabel was, like so many of my female ancestors, trapped in spinsterdom. The eternal maiden aunt.

Different story altogether, when I looked more closely at the census record. They were no longer in Cheltenham but here, in Edinburgh, at an address only five minutes’ walk from my own. 29 Mansionhouse Road is an elegantly proportioned lodge in a vaguely Greek style, built in 1848 as the Scottish capital expanded to the south in the suburb of Newington. Today it sits on the edge of an area of the most expensive housing in the city called The Grange, large detached houses built by wealthy Scottish merchants and bankers; until recently Fred Goodwin the disgraced CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland lived in the district.

By the time Phebe and Mabel were living there the more densely populated Edinburgh tenements of Marchmont, thrown up in the 1880s, were pressing up against it. Marchmont is home to a mixture of urban professionals and a lively transient student population, and I don’t suppose its character has changed all that much since it was developed 130 years ago.

Elegant urban sprawl: the tenements of Marchmont, with Bruntsfield Hospital beyond - author's home also depicted

And why had they made the move from Cheltenham to Edinburgh? In 1901, at the age of 32, Mabel was herself a student. More than that, she was studying at Edinburgh University’s school of medicine to be a doctor. This was a remarkable ambition for a woman at the time, and her mother’s support for it was a very modern attitude. But Phebe was from a Baptist family, raised to believe there should be no barriers in education in the service of God.

Although Mabel was not the first woman doctor, she was one of the early beneficiaries of those who fought for women to be allowed to study medicine. And Edinburgh was the scene of the battle. In 1869 a group of women known as the Edinburgh Seven were the first to attend medical lectures, by private arrangement and at their own expense in segregated classes, at Edinburgh University.

Their presence outraged many, and caused a riot the following year outside Surgeon’s Hall (opposite my nearest stationery supplier) where they were taking an exam in anatomy. Women, it was felt, should not be expected or allowed to handle the human body. And although they had been allowed to matriculate in Edinburgh University, it was ruled at the end of their studies in 1873 that they would not receive degrees, and – to add insult to injury – that they should not have been permitted to study in the first place.

Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh (from Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh, 1883)

They took their campaign to London, where Sophia Jex-Blake opened the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. A bill placed before parliament in 1876 by a cousin of Henry’s, the MP Russell Gurney (my 1st cousin 4x removed), made it legal – but still not compulsory – for medical examining boards to treat men and women equally.

Jex-Blake returned to Edinburgh in 1878 and became the city’s first ever woman doctor. She established the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and the Edinburgh Provident Dispensary for Women and Children. The latter, which provided medical care and education to the poor, became in time the Bruntsfield Hospital, built in the grounds of her home Bruntsfield Lodge (past which I walk my dog every day).

Signs of the times at Bruntsfield Hospital (closed in 1989 and converted into private accommodation)

Female undergraduates were at last admitted to Edinburgh University in 1892, less than ten years before Mabel enrolled there. Jex-Blake’s Edinburgh School had, in political terms, served its purpose and as other avenues for women’s medical education opened up, it closed in 1898. In 1899 Mabel won a medal for practical anatomy, the very subject on which her predecessors were being examined when the riots took place around Surgeon's Hall in 1870. She graduated in 1903, and her career as a woman doctor will be the subject of a future post here.

My own remarkable niece, supported by her remarkable mother, is about to start studying medicine at Edinburgh. She should know about the landmarks physical and historical with which the roads to her place of learning are lined.

Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912), first of the first, who assembled a class of women to study medicine in Edinburgh

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