Janet Sloan Doak: An inspirational Edinburgh alumni

One hundred and eleven years after Janet Sloan Doak matriculated at the University of Edinburgh in 1906, I (her great-granddaughter) followed in her footsteps. Yet, the road she walked in pursuit of higher education could not have been further from mine.

This university, founded in 1583, first admitted women 286 years later in 1869 when ‘The Edinburgh Seven’ were allowed to study medicine.

They were the first women at a British university to do so. They were tragically denied the right to graduate because of gender discrimination. In 1893, the first seven women were allowed to graduate.

Thirteen years later, in 1906 Janet Sloan Doak was the 63rd women to matriculate for The Degree of Bachelor of Medicine and Master in Surgery.

Before studying at Edinburgh University, I knew relatively little about Janet. I knew that she used to send Haggis down to my dad and his siblings at Christmas and that she was married to a pastor. Despite this, as a Doctor, she often voiced the medical problems of the Virgin Birth. She told my Granddad stories about suffragettes on trams and, near her house in Ayrshire, my dad, his brother and sister used to feed local deer Tic Tacs. But since I’ve been at Edinburgh, my great-grandmother has increasingly featured in my thoughts.

Last year when I was a fresher, I sat in Teviot Library Bar, which was founded in 1889, and I thought of her. Superficially, my imagination placed her where I was sitting, in our shared student union, with her friends talking or studying (not eating 2-for-1 nachos with a pint of Tenants like I was) — I felt a connection in our shared experience of a now 128-year-old building. But Janet would have never known what the inside of Teviot Row looked like.

In fact, it was only in 1971 (83 years after Teviot Row was built, and 59 years after Janet graduated) that the Student Union voted to allow women to enter the building. That was three years before she died aged 83.

In 1909, as she studied to become a doctor, 250,000 people took to Hyde Park in London to protest for women’s suffrage. It wasn’t until 1918, six years after becoming a qualified doctor at the age of 32, that Janet was allowed to vote for the first time.

 At the University of Edinburgh, women were not taught with their male counterparts and women’s academic prizes were not featured in the annual university-wide calendar, only in the subject-specific calendar. 

Thus, public recognition should be given to all the women that had their academic successes subordinated by institutional discrimination. With a special mention to Janet, who in the Prize List for Summer 1911, was awarded Second Prize in the Class of Public Health, with a staggering 89%.

Now, after getting to know my great-grandmother via floor six of George Square library, in the Archive’s Reading Room — and through research into the academic struggle of female students at the turn of the century, and female struggle for equality generally — my imagination instead takes me to July 1912.

Upon looking at stoicism in her eyes as her graduation photograph was taken, I can’t help but imagine Janet holding her degree just that little bit tighter.

Image: Cornell University Library via Wikimedia Commons

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