Edinburgh Seven: Musical inspired by trailblazing female medics set to be staged in London and America

They blazed a trail for the rights of women to study at university and practise medicine – despite being confronted by sexism, bureaucracy and a rioting mob.

The first teaser trailer for the new musical has just been released.
The first teaser trailer for the new musical has just been released.

Now a new musical inspired by the “Edinburgh Seven” – the first female students in Britain, who were charged higher fees, had doors slammed in their faces and even had mud thrown at them – could be heading for London’s West End and Broadway.

A New York-based director-choreographer and London producer are working on a production which will explore the events which divided Edinburgh’s medical establishment 150 years ago, which saw the students prevented from graduating, but eventually led to women winning the right to go to university across Britain.

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The first trailer has also been unveiled to coincide with the 150th anniversary of an angry mob of students tried to prevent the Edinburgh Seven from sitting a crucial exam.

The new musical, written by Scottish theatre-makers John Kielty and Jordanna O'Neill, focuses on a campaign instigated when Sophia Jex-Blake was accepted to study medicine at Edinburgh University, but had the decision overturned because it was deemed too difficult and expensive to accommodate a single female student.

She persuaded the editor of The Scotsman at the time, Alexander Russel to run an appeal by Jex-Blake which resulted in six other women – Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell – coming forward and the newspaper would go on to support their campaign as they were allowed to matriculate but faced increasing hostility and growing legal challenges which prevented them graduating.

Their campaign was largely forgotten until the Edinburgh Seven were honoured with a plaque at the medical school in 2015 and were last year finally awarded posthumous degrees.

The musical has been in intensive development since O’Neill and Kielty started working in official collaboration with director and choreographer Amy Anders Corcoran and Katy Lipson, founder of international musical theatre festival Page to Stage.

Lipson hopes to secure enough “venue partners” for the musical to allow a full production to get off the ground within the next 18 months.

She said: “It is an amazing story when you think about what these women went after and what they achieved, but also what that means for women today and why it feels relevant and contemporary.

“I want to take the show all the way from workshop stage to full production and Amy will also help put it on the stage. We definitely think it could have an international interest. We’re trying to build something with real style. We don’t want to limit ourselves to Scotland because the story is set there. Ultimately, it has to have longevity.”

Corcoran said: “I believe very strongly that things that are happening now are very similar to things that were happening to those women at that time. Women still have to fight for their place in a lot of fields. This story is absolutely going to speak to this generation of women.”

The trailer for the musical has been released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the notorious protest against the Edinburgh Seven outside the Royal College of Surgeons.

Kielty said: “We’ve been spending the last few months making the music for the show. We’ve got four new songs now and a much-tighter script. It’s been really good to have time to sit and properly produce the music and hear the songs as I hear them in my head.”

O’Neill said: “The Edinburgh Seven have become an obsession of mine since I first came across the story working at Surgeons' Hall in 2015. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of them and about their effort and sacrifice.

“I was also struck by the parallels still faced by women today - their story didn’t feel distant and unfamiliar, it felt very relevant.

“Working with Amy and Katy has been wonderful. To find collaborators that are as passionate about the story as we are has been truly uplifting for us as creators during lockdown.”

The Edinburgh Seven campaign was launched after Sophie Jex-Blake placed an appeal for women interested in studying medicine in The Scotsman.

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Edinburgh University unveiled a new work of art honouring the Edinburgh Seven in its anatomy department earlier this year.
Seven modern-day medical students - Violet Borkowska, Hikari Sakurai, Megan Cameron, Simran Piya, Caitlin Taylor, Izzie Dighero and Mei Yen Liew - collected posthumous degrees on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven last year. Picture: Callum Bennets