New work of art honours trailblazing Edinburgh medics who fought for the right of women to go to university

They were the young Edinburgh medics who blazed a trail for the rights of women to study at university.

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 7:30 am
The new work of art inspired by the Edinburgh Seven has been created for the university by photographer Laurence Winram.
The new work of art inspired by the Edinburgh Seven has been created for the university by photographer Laurence Winram.

Now the “Edinburgh Seven,” the first female undergraduates to matriculate at a UK university, have been honoured in a new work of art unveiled more than 150 years after they started their studies.

A famous Rembrandt painting depicting an anatomy lesson, a copy of which hangs in the university’s medical school, has been “reimagined” to pay tribute to the Edinburgh Seven’s groundbreaking campaign.

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Although they paved the way for the universal right to a higher education, the seven students – Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Sophia Jex-Blake, Edith Pechey and Isabel Thorne – encountered regular opposition, bureaucracy and disruption, and were eventually prevented from completing their studies.

The new work of art, created by Edinburgh-based photographer Laurence Winram, has been unveiled just over a year after the seven students who enrolled in 1869 were honoured with posthumous honorary degrees.

A group of modern-day Edinburgh students, who collected the honorary degrees last year, were reunited to create the new image, which was captured before social distancing regulations were in force.

Simran Piya, Megan Cameron, Ella Crowther, Caitlyn Taylor, Izzie Dighero, Mei Yen Liew and Sorna Paramananthan were pictured alongside teaching fellow Alethea Kelsey and “cadaver” Liam Parkinson.

It has just gone on display in a common room named after Sophia Jex-Blake at the world-leading “bioquarter” complex the university helped create at Little France, in the south side of Edinburgh. She instigated the campaign after her efforts to study medicine were rejected in 1869 on the grounds that the medical school could not put in place the necessary arrangements “in the interests of one lady.”

A stage musical honoring the Edinburgh Seven, billed as “a harrowing, hilarious and heartbreaking fight based on principles and morality” has also been in recent development.

A spokeswoman for the medical school said: “Unfortunately we have very few images of the seven women and none of them together.

"To celebrate this important moment in our history, we commissioned Edinburgh-based photographer Laurence Winram to produce an image representative of the seven women that we could hang on the walls of our medical school alongside the portraits of other notable people from our past.

"The image is a reimagining of a Rembrandt painting from 1632 called ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp’, a copy of which hangs in our department of anatomy at Teviot Place.

EDINBURGH, UK - July 2018: Seven students who blazed a trail for women’s access to higher education are to be awarded posthumous honorary degrees on Saturday 6th July, 150 years after beginning their studies. The group – known as the Edinburgh Seven – were among the first women admitted to a UK university when they enrolled to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869. The women faced substantial resistance from their male peers and were ultimately prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors. Pictured at Old College, seven current students at Edinburgh Medical School will collect the degrees on behalf of the women. The modern-day students who collected the honorary degrees on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven last year - Violet Borkowska, Hikari Sakurai, Megan Cameron, Simran Piya, Caitlin Taylor, Izzie Dighero and Mei Yen Liew - were reunited for the new work of art. Picture: Calum Bennetts

"The original painting shows a group of male medical students and a male teacher gathered around a cadaver.

"We have reproduced this image with the present day students who represented the Edinburgh Seven at last year’s posthoumous honorary degree ceremony, along with a member of our current anatomy teaching team.”

Professor Moira Whyte, head of the medical school and the college of medicine at the university, said: “This very special image will hang in the heart of the medical school as a constant reminder to all those who come through here of the important lessons the Edinburgh Seven still hold and of our commitment to equal access to education for all.”