Sunday, 25 August 2013

Heraldic Achievement - Sophia Jex-Blake

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

You may have noticed something different about today’s coat of arms. Instead of a helmet on top of the shield there’s a pretty bow. There’s 2 reasons for this – first, the subject’s sex, and second, her marital status. Unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, who could display her arms beside her husband’s on his shield, Sophia Jex-Blake never married.

In English heraldry unmarried women show their coats of arms with a bow and sometimes a garland, like I’ve shown here. Women don’t have helmets because they are not appointed as knights. A spinster’s arms should also be shown on a diamond-shaped lozenge because, again, it is knights (or married women who use their husband’s) who use a shield. However, I think Sophia Jex-Blake’s arms look cramped on a lozenge and have gone against the rules and shown them on a shield, and even then some parts are difficult to make out clearly.

Now I’ve got the technical bit over with, just who was Sophia Jex-Blake?

Sophia Jex-Blake was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale, but whereas Florence was content to concern herself with the training of nurses, Sophia wanted to go further and become a doctor. Both women came from the same social background where women were not expected to earn a living (a view which Florence Nightingale agreed with). In fact, Sophia’s father refused to give her his permission to become a doctor because it meant she was paid a salary. Sophia persisted, however, and applied unsuccessfully to several universities for acceptance onto doctor training courses.

The breakthrough came in 1869 when she became one of 7 women accepted into Edinburgh University, becoming one the first female medical undergraduates in the UK. After several years studying there and elsewhere, Sophia became registered as the third female doctor in the country with the General Medical Council.

It was Sophia, with opposition from Florence Nightingale, who pushed for equality in medical courses and  examinations, enabling women to be treated the same as men. Sophia co-founded Schools of Medicine for Woman in London (1874) and Edinburgh (1886). She had her own private practice in Edinburgh and retired in 1899.

Sophia inherited her coat of arms from her father. The shield shows 2 different arms in what are called quarters (obvious, I know, but some people can inherit dozens or arms and show them all, and they’re still called quarters). Just like reading a book quarters are “read” from left to right, top to bottom. So, in the 1st and 4th quarters are the Blake coat of arms. In the 2nd and 3rd quarters are the Jex arms.

Just as Florence Nightingale’s father adopted the arms of the Nightingales, as heir to that family, so Sophia’s grandfather William Blake added the Jex name and arms to his own on the death of the last Jex in 1837. My research hasn’t found any record of Sophia’s family having a coat of arms before 1837, so I assume they were designed specifically for him.

Neither the Blake nor Jex arms have any medical symbolism, except perhaps the motto, which I’ll come to later. Unlike other arms I’ve presented (e.g. Elton John, or Lord Browne) the Blake and Jex arms were not brand new original designs but were based on those of families with the same or similar surnames. This often happens. Where no proof of a relationship to a family with a coat of arms can be proved the heralds (the only people allowed to so) design something new that looks similar.

Sophia’s Blake arms are based on those of a Cornish Blake family of the 17th century – a black chevron with 3 wheat sheaves. The change made for Sophia’s grandfather was the addition of a black border with 8 fleurs-de-lys. For Jex the heralds looked at a family whose names sound similar - Jacques. The Yorkshire Jacques have 3 shells on a central stripe, again dating back to the 17th century. The heralds changed this for Jex to include the red bands.

The Latin motto, which seems to have been created specifically for Sophia’s grandfather in 1837, is highly appropriate for Sophia herself. In translation it says “A heart well prepared”, a perfect motto for someone involved in medicine and healthcare. That’s why I’ve put little hearts on the motto scroll instead of my usual pink triangles.

Sophia’s own heart was given to Margaret Todd, a Glaswegian doctor who was 19 years younger than herself. When Sophia retired the couple moved to Rotherfield. Sophia Jex-Blake died in 1912, and in 1918 Margaret wrote and published a biography of her.

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