Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was quite a remarkable woman by Victorian standards. She was the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain, and was the co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women. She was also the first dean of a British medical school, the first female doctor of medicine in France, the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board, and the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain.
Elizabeth was born on 9th June 1836 in Whitechapel, London, the second of 12 children of Newson Garett and his wife Louisa (nee Dunnell). Newson, not academically inclined, became a silversmith and the manager of a large pawnbroker’s shop. However, wanting to succeed, he eventually moved his family to Suffolk, where he bought a barley and coal merchants business in Snape, and constructed Snape Maltings (we took our grandchildren to Snape Maltings at Christmas to see Santa Claus!). Newson became a prosperous businessman, and was able to build Alde House, a mansion on a hill at Aldeburgh, for his family. All of Newson’s children grew up to become achievers in the professional classes of late Victorian England.
There was no school in Aldeburgh, and so Elizabeth was home-schooled by her mother, later being taught by a governess from the ages of 10 – 13, thereafter she was sent to a private boarding school in Blackheath, London, which was run by the step-aunts of the poet Robert Browning. Elizabeth’s main complaint about the school was the lack of science and mathematics instruction. In 1854 when she was 18, she went to Gateshead to visit a friend, and met the feminist Emily Davies, the future co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge, who became a lifelong friend and confidante.
Reading The English Woman’s Journal in 1858, Elizabeth Garrett learned of Elizabeth Blackwell, who had become the first female doctor in the USA in 1849. Elizabeth Garrett joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, which organised Dr Blackwell’s lectures on Medicine as a Profession for Ladies. Through this society Elizabeth met Dr Blackwell and her future was sealed. Elizabeth’s father Newson agreed to support his daughter financially, after initially opposing the radical idea of her becoming a physician.
Elizabeth spent an initial 6 months as a surgery nurse at the Middlesex Hospital. After proving to be a good nurse, she was allowed to attend an outpatients’ clinic. She unsuccessfully attempted to enrol in the hospital’s medical school, but was allowed private tuition in Latin, Greek and Materia Medica (medicines) with the hospital’s apothecary while continuing her work as a nurse. She employed a tutor to study anatomy and physiology, and eventually was allowed into the dissecting room and the chemistry lectures. Gradually she became an unwelcome presence among the male students, who campaigned against her admittance. She was obliged to leave the Middlesex Hospital, but she did so with an honours certificate in chemistry and Materia Medica. She then applied to several medical schools, but was turned down for all of them. She then continued her private education and in 1865 finally obtained a licence to practise medicine from the Society of Apothecaries.
Unable to take up a medical post in any hospital due to her sex, Elizabeth opened her own practice at 20 Upper Berkeley Street, London, opening an outpatients’ dispensary after 6 months at 69 Seymour Place to enable poor women to obtain medical help from a qualified practitioner of their own gender. In the first year she had 3000 new patients. On learning that the Dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Sorbonne, Paris, was in favour of admitting female medical students, Elizabeth studied French so that she could apply for a medical degree, which she obtained in 1870. In 1871 she married steamship company co-owner James Anderson and eventually had three children without giving up her medical practice, but her second child Margaret died of meningitis in 1875 aged one. In 1872 her dispensary became the New Hospital for Women and Children, treating women from all over London for gynaecological conditions, moving to a new premises in Marylebone Street in 1874.
In 1873 Elizabeth gained membership of the British Medical Association and remained the only female member for 19 years, due to the Association’s vote against the admission of further women (in 1897 Elizabeth was elected president of the East Anglian branch of the British Medical Association).
Around 1874 Elizabeth entered into discussion with male medical views regarding women. Henry Maudsley’s article on Sex and Mind in Education argued that education for women caused over-exertion and reduced their reproductive capacity, sometimes causing nervous and mental disorders. Elizabeth’s argument was that the real danger for women was boredom. In the same year she co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, and became a lecturer in what was the only hospital in Britain to offer courses for women. She appointed Dr Elizabeth Blackwell as Professor of Gynaecology. She continued to work there for the rest of her career and was dean of the school from 1883 to 1902. The school was later called the Royal Free Hospital of Medicine, which later became part of what is now the medical school of University College, London.
On 9th November 1908 Elizabeth was elected mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor in England. She died in 1917 aged 81, and is buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Aldeburgh, Suffolk.