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11 little-known things about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

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A pioneering physician, political campaigner and suffragette, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain. Amongst her many achievements she was also the co-founder of the first hospital to be staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female doctor of medicine in France and the first female mayor in Britain.

The daughter of Newson Garrett, a one-time broker turned prosperous businessman, Elizabeth, in enduring and overcoming vast amounts of prejudice and hostility towards her ambitions, clearly had indomitable determination and did not suffer fools gladly. However, she was also described as having a ‘superior mind’, ‘great calmness of demeanour’, ‘a large amount of firmness’ and ‘fairness and coolness in an argument’. 

She was inspired to become a doctor after making the acquaintance of Elizabeth Blackwell, an English woman who had emigrated with her parents to the United States and had qualified as a physician from the University of Geneva after many fruitless attempts to be accepted into American medical schools. However, female doctors were unheard of in nineteenth-century Britain and her attempts to study at a number of medical schools were denied. Despite these setbacks, Elizabeth doggedly pursued her dream, enrolling as nursing student at Middlesex Hospital and attending classes intended for male students, studying Latin, Greek and materia medica privately, gaining a certificate in anatomy and physiology from the Society of Apothecaries and establishing her own practice and dispensary for women in London. 

Not long after graduating from the University of Sorbonne, Elizabeth was elected to the first London School Board and was made one of the visiting physicians of the East London Hospital for Children. In 1871 married James Skelton Anderson, co-owner of the Orient Steamship Company and financial adviser to the East London Hospital. Two years later she gained membership of the British Medical Association (BMA) and the following year co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake, lecturing at what was the only teaching hospital in Britain to offer courses for women and becoming dean of the school in 1883. In November 1908 she was elected mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor in England. 

As the first woman to secure a medical diploma in Britain, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson paved the way for other women, setting a precedent for aspiring female physicians and championing women’s rights. Here are 11 things you (probably) didn’t know about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson:

1. Elizabeth was one of 12 children of a pawnbroker

Born on 9 June 1836 in Whitechapel, London, Elizabeth Garrett was the second of twelve children of Newson Garrett, a pawnbroker from Suffolk and his wife, Louisa (nee Dunnell) from London. The Garretts had their first three children - Louie, Elizabeth and Newson (who died aged 6 months) - in quick succession whilst living in a Whitechapel pawnbroker’s shop. Working his way up in the world, her father became the manager of larger pawnbrokers and a silversmith, so the family moved to 142 Long Acre, London and three more children were born. At the age of 29, Newson moved his family back to Aldeburgh, Suffolk where he bought a barley and coal merchants and constructed Snape Maltings, a range of buildings for malting barley. As the business expanded, five more children were born and by 1850 Newson was prosperous businessman, able to build Alde House a mansion on a hill behind Aldeburgh. 

2. Elizabeth didn’t attend school until her teens

There was no school in Aldeburgh, so Elizabeth learned the three Rs from her mother and at the age of 10 a governess, Miss Edgeworth, was employed to educate Elizabeth and her sister. When Elizabeth was 13 she was sent to a private boarding school in Blackheath, London, which was run by the step aunts of poet Robert Browning. Here she was taught English literature, French, Italian and German as well as deportment, but Elizabeth was dissatisfied with the lack of science and mathematics instruction. Outside of formal schooling, Elizabeth’s parents encouraged all their children to pursue their ambitions and to take an interest in local politics. Contrary to practices at the time, Elizabeth and her siblings were allowed the freedom to explore the local area and to encouraged to travel - when Elizabeth finished school in 1850 she was sent on a short tour abroad, which ended with a visit to the Great Exhibition in London. After completing her formal education, Elizabeth spent the next nine years tending to domestic duties, but continued to study Latin and arithmetic and read widely. 

3. Elizabeth and Millicent Fawcett were sisters

In 1865, Elizabeth had joined forces with some of her feminist friends, to form a women’s discussion group called the Kensington Society, which organised a petition asking parliament to grant women the vote. Although the petition was rejected, it was supported by Liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett. Henry, the blind MP for Brighton, and Elizabeth became friendly, but Elizabeth rejected his marriage proposal as she believed it may damage her career. Fawcett later married Elizabeth’s younger sister, Millicent, who went on to become a leader in the constitutional campaign for women’s suffrage. As a suffragist Millicent took a moderate line, but was a tireless campaigner and concentrated much of her energy on the struggle to improve women’s opportunities for higher education, co-founding Newnham College, Cambridge in 1871. Elizabeth acted as Henry’s medical adviser. 

4.  Elizabeth was a lifelong friend of the feminist Emily Davies

At the age of 18, Elizabeth and her sister visited their school friends, Jane and Anne Crow, in Gateshead, where they met Emily Davies, the early feminist and future co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge. Davies became a lifelong friend and confidante, who encouraged Elizabeth to become a career-woman.

5. Elizabeth’s radical ideas had the support of her father

Initially, Newson was opposed to the idea of his daughter becoming a physician, but he relented and did all he could both financially and otherwise to support her attempts to become Britain’s first female doctor. Her mother, on the other hand, was horrified. Accompanied by her father, Elizabeth visited leading doctors in Harley Street, but was unsuccessful and similarly applied to study in several medical schools, all of which refused to accept a female student. She therefore spent the first six months as a surgery nurse at Middlesex Hospital and attended lectures that were provided for the male doctors in the apothecary. She was unsuccessful in her attempt to enrol in the hospital’s medical school and employed a tutor to study anatomy and physiology three times a week until she was allowed into the dissecting room and chemistry lectures. After complaints from male students about her admittance, Elizabeth was obliged to leave the hospital, but did so with an honours certificate in chemistry and materia medica. She also privately obtained her certificate in anatomy and physiology. 

Determined to secure a qualifying diploma in order to place her name on the Medical Register and, having been refused entry to medical schools, through a loophole Elizabeth was able to be admitted to pursue the degree of Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (L.S.A.). Although less prestigious than an MD, or doctorate of medicine, it would entitle her to be a practising physician. After more years battling to be accepted whilst she studied, in 1865 she presented her credentials to the Society of Apothecaries, but they refused to administer the examination. Her father, Newson, threatened to sue so the apothecaries reversed their decision and Elizabeth obtained her licence to practice medicine and saw her name enrolled in the Medical Register one year later; the first woman qualified in Britain to do so. As soon as Elizabeth was granted her diploma, the Society of Apothecaries immediately revised their charter to require graduation from an accredited medical school—all of which excluded women—as a prerequisite for the L.S.A. degree. Another woman’s name would not be added to the Medical Register for the next 12 years. Elizabeth was the first British woman to secure an English diploma in medicine, however the honour of being the first female put on the British Medical Register goes to her acquaintance, Elizabeth Blackwell (who had a foreign qualification).

Although licensed to practice medicine, Elizabeth could not take up a medical post in any hospital, so with her father’s financial backing opened her own practice at 20 Upper Berkeley Street, London and a little while later, St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children. 

6. Elizabeth became involved in a dispute with Josephine Butler

After opening her practice, patients were scarce initially, reluctant to consult a female physician. However, when an outbreak of Cholera threatened, citizens, both rich and poor rushed to her clinic in desperation. In the first year she tended to 3,000 new patients, who made 9,3000 outpatient visits to the dispensary. 

During this period, Elizabeth became involved in a dispute with Josephine Butler, the feminist and social reformer who campaigned for women’s suffrage, the right of women to better education and the abolition of child prostitution, and human trafficking. The contention was over the Contagious Diseases Acts, which Butler believed discriminated against women. Elizabeth took the view that the measures provided the only means of protecting innocent women and children.

7. Elizabeth taught herself French in order to gain her degree

Determined to obtain her medical degree, Elizabeth taught herself French so that she could go to university in Paris. She had that the Dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Sorbonne was more open towards admitting female medical students. In 1870 she obtained France’s first ever MD degree for a woman.

8. Elizabeth was the first woman to be appointed to a medical post in Britain

In 1870, Elizabeth was elected to the first London School Board, an office newly opened to women and received the highest vote amongst all the candidates. She was also made one of the visiting physicians of the East London Hospital for Children, becoming the first woman in Britain to be appointed to a medical post. 

9. Elizabeth co-founded the first teaching hospital in Britain to offer courses for women

In 1872 Elizabeth’s dispensary was renamed the New Hospital for Women and Children and treated women from all over London for gynaecological conditions. It was staffed entirely by women and Elizabeth Blackwell, the woman who inspired Elizabeth to become a doctor, was appointed Professor of Gynaecology. The hospital moved to new premises in 1874, the same year that Elizabeth co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, the only teaching hospital in Britain at the time to train women, with other pioneering female physicians and feminists, such as Sophia Jex-Blake, Emily Blackwell and Thomas Henry Huxley. Jex-Blake expected to be put in charge, but Elizabeth believed that her temperament made her unsuitable, so Isabel Thorne was appointed instead. Elizabeth was Dean of the school 1883 to 1902; Jex-Blake was the only member of the council who voted against the decision. The hospital was later called the Royal Free Hospital of Medicine and became part of what is now the medical school of University College London.

10. Elizabeth was the only female member of the British Medical Association for 19 years

Elizabeth gained membership of the British Medical Association (BMA) in 1873, but remained the only female for 19 years after Association voted against the admission of further women. In 1897 she was elected president of the East Anglian branch.

11. Garrett was active in politics and the women’s suffrage movement

Although not as active as her sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Elizabeth was active in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1866 she and Emily Davies presented petitions signed by more than 1,500 asking that female heads of household be given the vote and she also joined the British Women’s Suffrage Committee. In 1889 she became a member of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and became more active after her husband’s death in 1907. Continuing her interest in politics Elizabeth was elected mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908, the first woman mayor in England, and gave speeches for women’s suffrage. At the age of 72 she became a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), storming the House of Commons and going on a lecture tour with Anne Kenny. However she withdrew from the WSPU in 1911 after the militant activity increased, objecting to their arson campaign.

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