Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was an English physician and feminist, she was the first female doctor to qualify in England. She opened a school of medicine for women, and paved the way for women’s medical education in Britain.
Anderson was born in 1836 in Whitechapel, London to Newson and Louisa Dunnell Garrett. Her father had previously been a pawnbroker, but by the time Anderson was born, he owned a corn and coal warehouse which made the family comfortably wealthy. Anderson’s father believed that his children should all be educated equally, and a governess was provided for her education. In 1849, Anderson began attending the Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen in Blackheath. The school was run by the aunts of the famous poet Robert Browning. Anderson was disappointed at the lack of education in science and mathematics, and her education there consisted of English literature, French, Italian and German as well as deportment.
After her education, Anderson spent the next nine years tending to domestic duties as required by her gender. She continued her studies in Latin and arithmetic during this time, and read widely. She also gave weekly lectures to her siblings on politics and current affairs. In 1854, when Anderson was 18 she met Emily Davies, a feminist and future co-founder of Girton College in Cambridge on a visit to school friends in Gateshead. Five years later, Anderson joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, which organised lectures by Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Anderson was able to have a private meeting with Blackwell, who convinced her to become a doctor.
Anderson and Davies were both determined in their fight for women’s rights, and together they felt that Anderson’s desire to become a doctor would help to open the medical profession to women, and Davies would focus on women gaining access to a university education. Anderson’s 13 year old sister Millicent was also passionate about women’s rights, and was determined to fight for votes for women. Anderson’s father supported her desire to become a doctor, but it was unheard of for a women to study medicine and her applications to many medical schools were denied. Undeterred, Anderson enrolled as a nursing student at Middlesex Hospital and attended classes for male doctors, only to be banned after complaints from male students who did not like the fact that she was top of the class in an exam. She did however, leave with an honours certificate in chemistry and materia medica. Anderson managed to privately gain a certificate in anatomy and physiology and in 1862, joined the Society of Apothecaries and in 1865, took the exams required to gain a licence to practise medicine. She became the first woman in Britain qualified to practise medicine, and did so with the highest marks of the seven candidates that took the exam. The society, outraged that she had managed to pass, changed it’s rule to explicitly deny women the opportunity to enter the profession this way.
Anderson was unable to gain a medical post in a hospital due to her gender, so in 1866, she established the St. Mary’s Dispensary for Women in London, which provided medical help for poor women whom she felt would benefit from a medical professional of their own gender. In the beginning, patients were reluctant to attend a dispensary staffed by a woman but after the first death caused by a cholera outbreak which had begun in 1865, patients forgot their prejudices and Anderson tended to 3,000 new patients, making 9,300 outpatient visits to her dispensary.
Anderson was determined to gain a degree in medicine, and did so in 1870 from the Sorbonne in Paris but The British Medical Register refused to recognise her qualification. That same year, she became the first woman in Britain to be appointed to a medical post, becoming a visiting physician at the East London Hospital. While at the East London Hospital, she met James Anderson and in 1871, they were married. In 1870, she was also elected to the London School Board, a position that had only just become available to women due to the 1870 Education Act. She gained the highest vote among all the candidates.
In 1872 Anderson expanded her dispensary with the addition of a ward with ten beds, renaming it the New Hospital for Women and Children. The Hospital was staffed entirely by women including Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was appointed as a professor of gynaecology. Anderson provided an undeniable example of how successful trained professional women could be in the field of medicine. In 1873, Anderson was finally admitted by the British Medical Association, she would be their only woman member for 19 years. A year later, she helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake where she taught for 23 years and became the Dean of in 1883. Partly due to Anderson’s campaigning, an act was passed in 1876 permitting women to enter the medical profession. In 1878, Anderson further demonstrated her skill in medicine when becoming the first woman in Europe to perform a successful ovariotomy.
As well as her success in medicine, Anderson was also active in the fight for women’s suffrage. She, along with Davies had presented petitions signed with more than 1,500 signatures asking that female heads of household be given the vote in 1866, the same year she joined the first British Women’s Suffrage Committee. In 1889, she became a member of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and after her husband’s death in 1907, she became more active in her campaigning.
Anderson retired from medicine in 1902, and moved to Aldeburgh where she became Mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908, making her the first female mayor. She used her position as mayor to give speeches for suffrage, and became a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union along with her daughter, Louisa. She was part of the group of members of the WPSU to storm the House of Commons in 1908 and was lucky not to be arrested. A year later, she went on a lecture tour with fellow suffragette Annie Kenney. In 1911, after the WSPU began to use more and more violent tactics, including arson she left the organisation. She died in 1917.
Anderson’s New Hospital for Women was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918, a year after her death. It is now part of the University of London. The former buildings that housed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital now houses the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery, which tells the story of Anderson, her hospital and women’s struggle for equality in medicine in the 19th and 20th century. Anderson was a trailblazer for women within the field of medicine, and her struggle for her own education, as well as in fighting for the The UK Medical Act of 1876 which permitted women to enter the medical profession was hugely important. As was her contribution helping to establish the London School of Medicine for Women to allow them to study to gain a license to enter the profession, and the creation of a hospital for them to work in once qualified.