Sophia Jex-Blake, the daughter of Thomas Jex-Blake and Mary Cubitt, was born at 3 Croft Place, Hastings on 21st January, 1840. Thomas Jex-Blake was a successful barrister, but he had retired at the time of her birth.
In 1851 the family moved to 13 Sussex Square, Brighton. Sophia attended several private boarding-schools as a child. Sophia's parents were Evangelical Anglicans who held very traditional views on education and at first refused permission for her to study at college.
Eventually Dr. Jex-Blake gave his permission and in 1858 Sophia began attending classes at Queen's College in Harley Street. Two of her fellow students were Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss. One of her teachers was the Reverand John Maurice, one of the founders of the Christian Socialist movement. He told her: "The vocation of a teacher is an awful one she will do others unspeakable harm if she is not aware of its usefulness How can you give a woman self-respect, how can you win for her the respect of others Watch closely the first utterances of infancy, the first dawnings of intelligence; how thoughts spring into acts, how acts pass into habits. The study is not worth much if it is not busy about the roots of things."
Sophia did so well that she was asked to become a tutor of mathematics at the college. Sophia's parents believed it was wrong for middle-class women to work and only gave their approval after she agreed not to accept a salary. During this period she shared a house in Nottingham Place with Octavia Hill and her family.
While in London became friends with a group of feminists that included Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett, Adelaide Anne Procter, and Emily Faithfull. According to Louisa Garrett Anderson: "They were comrades and worked for a great end." Eventually, most of these women became involved in the struggle for women's suffrage.
In 1862 Jex-Blake spent several months in Edinburgh being taught by private tutors. She also helped Elizabeth Garrett to prepare her application to University of Edinburgh for enrolment as a medical student. The two had previously met in London, but during Elizabeth's visit to Edinburgh, Jex-Blake learned more about the problems facing women who wished to practise medicine.
After Queen's College, Sophia spent time teaching in Germany and the United States. When she returned she wrote a book about his experiences A Visit to Some American Schools and Colleges (1867). Sophia had been especially impressed with the experiments in the United States with co-education. While in America she met Dr. Lucy Sewell, the resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women. Sophia now decided she would rather be a doctor rather than a teacher.
Sophia Jex-Blake wrote a pamphlet, Medicine as a Profession for Women (1869), where she argued the case for women doctors: "One argument usually advanced against the practice of medicine by women is that there is no demand for it; that women, as a rule, have little confidence in their own sex, and had rather be attended by a man it is probably a fact, that until lately there has been no demand for women doctors, because it does not occur to most people to demand what does not exist; but that very many women have wished that they could be medically attended by those of their own sex I am very sure, and I know of more than one case where ladies have habitually gone through one confinement after another without proper attendance, because the idea of employing a man was so extremely repugnant to them."
Sophia Jex-Blake began to explore the possibility of training as a doctor. This was a problem as British medical schools refused to accept women students. She eventually persuaded University of Edinburgh to allow her and her friend, Edith Pechy, to attend medical lectures. This annoyed the male students and attempts were made to stop them receiving teaching and taking their examinations. As Jex-Blake later pointed out: "On the afternoon of Friday 18th November 1870, we walked to the Surgeon's Hall, where the anatomy examination was to be held. As soon as we reached the Surgeon's Hall we saw a dense mob filling up the road The crowd was sufficient to stop all the traffic for an hour. We walked up to the gates, which remained open until we came within a yard of them, when they were slammed in our faces by a number of young men." Shirley Roberts adds: "Then a sympathetic student emerged from the hall; he opened the gate and ushered the women inside. They took their examination and all passed." Although Jex-Blake and Pechy both passed their examinations, university regulations only allowed medical degrees to be given to men. The British Medical Association therefore refused to register the women as doctors.
Sophia Jex-Blake's case generated a great deal of publicity and Russell Gurney, a M.P. who supported women's rights, decided to try and change the law. In 1876 Gurney managed to persuade Parliament to pass a bill that empowered all medical training bodies to educate and graduate women on the same terms as men. The first educational institution to offer this opportunity to women was the Irish College of Physicians. Sophia took up their offer and qualified as a doctor in 1877.
In June 1878, Jex-Blake opened a medical practice at 4 Manor Place; three months later she established a dispensary (an out-patient clinic) for impoverished women at 73 Grove Street, Fountainbridge. These ventures were highly successful but after the death of one of her assistants, she suffered from depression. She closed her practice and left the dispensary in the care of her medical colleagues.
Sophia Jex-Blake remained inactive for several years but eventually decided to join forces with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in her efforts to establish a Medical School for women. In 1887 they opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. In its second year the school was disrupted by disputes between Jex-Blake and several of the students who resented her imposition of strict rules of conduct.
One of her close friends, Dr Margaret Todd, the author of The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (1918), once said: "She was impulsive, she made mistakes and would do so to the end of her life: her naturally hasty temper and imperious disposition had been chastened indeed, but the chastening fire had been far too fierce to produce perfection … But there was another side to the picture after all. Many of those who regretted and criticised details were yet forced to bow before the big transparent honesty, the fine unflinching consistency of her life." While in Edinburgh, Sophia played an active role in the local Women's Suffrage Society.
When Dr. Jex-Blake, dismissed two students for what Elsie Inglis considered to be a trivial offence, she obtained funds from her father and some of his wealthy friends, and established a rival medical school, the Scottish Association for the Medical Education for Women.
In 1899 Jex-Blake retired to Windydene, a small farm at Mark Cross, some 5 miles south of Tunbridge Wells. Sophia Jex-Blake continued to campaign for women's suffrage until her death at Windydene on 7th January 1912.