People such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson have fundamentally shaped the society in which we now live. A woman of such influence deserves to be known and celebrated.
She refused to accept a domestic role and who fought to change the prevalent Victorian attitude that women and men could not be equal. Not only did she pursue this goal for herself, but she promoted equality for all women. She was the first female doctor in Britain, helped to establish the women's suffrage movement, became the first woman mayor in England and provided inspiration to her contemporaries and to those who followed in her footsteps.
Elizabeth Garrett was born in 1836 in Whitechapel, London, one of 12 children. When she was five, her father, Newson Garrett, bought a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, to where the family moved. By 1850, he was a wealthy man and able to send all his children away to school. Unusually for his time, Garrett considered it important that his daughters were educated, as well as his sons.
Elizabeth spent two years at boarding school in Blackheath and by the time she was 16 she was determined that she would work for a living, rather that stay at home and wait to be married.
Equality for Women and Medicine
While little is recorded about her life in the 1850s, it is certain that her views on social equality and what became known as feminism were developing. By 1854, Garrett was part of a circle of female friends in London, who all considered that the prevailing male domination of society was unjust. These friends included Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, both of whom went on to be influential suffragettes.
The turning point in Elizabeth Garrett's life was a meeting with Elizabeth Blackwell in 1859. Blackwell was the first qualified female doctor in the United States, inspiring Garrett to pursue a medical career for herself. With support from her parents, Garrett applied to study medicine at several medical schools, but was turned down because of her gender. Eventually, she enrolled as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital and attended lectures given to the male student doctors. However, this lasted only a few months, as the students complained about her attendance when she started to outshine them in lectures.
She turned to private study and was taught anatomy at the London Hospital and general medicine under the tuition of professors at St Andrews University and Edinburgh University Extra-Mural School. None of this would have been possible without the continued financial and moral support of her father.
In order to practise medicine, Garrett had to gain a qualifying diploma. London University, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons and other examining bodies refused to allow her to sit their examinations, but she discovered that the Society of Apothecaries did not specifically ban women from taking their exams. So in 1856, she sat and passed the Apothecaries examination1.
With more financial support from her father,2 Garrett set up her own medical practice in London and thereby became the first woman to practise medicine in Britain. In 1866 she opened, and was appointed General Medical Attendant to, St Mary's dispensary in Marylebone, where she set about establishing a medical service specifically for women. Not only that, but she started to teach medical courses to other women, so that the practice could expand. The St Mary's dispensary was renamed the New Hospital for Women in the 1870s.
Despite her success, she realised that without a medical degree she would never be taken seriously by the male-dominated profession. Unable to obtain an MD in Britain, she taught herself French3 and moved to Paris, where she was successful in becoming an MD at the University of Paris in 1870. Subsequently, that same year, Garrett was appointed visiting physician at the East London Hospital.
The Kensington Society and Universal Suffrage
Throughout her endeavour to gain professional recognition, Garrett was increasingly committed to equality for women. In 1865, she and ten others, including Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Barbara Bodichon, formed a women's discussion group called the Kensington Society.
All the members of the Society were trying to pursue careers in the male professions of medicine and education. Their discussions inevitably centred around women's lack of influence in society and turned to Parliamentary reform as a first step towards equality. The concept of universal suffrage4 was born.
In 1866, the Kensington Society organised a petition of 1,500 signatures, asking Parliament to grant equal voting rights for men and women. Women's suffrage was supported by many Members of Parliament, most notably John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett. Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men, but the amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73.
The Kensington Society decided to fight on and formed the London Society for Women's Suffrage. Other groups were also formed around Britain and in 1897, 17 of them joined together into the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). In the 1919 National Election, women were able to vote for the first time.
Garrett becomes Garrett Anderson
In 1878, Elizabeth Garrett married James Anderson, a London shipowner and financial adviser to East London Hospital. She did not, however, give up her medical practice, her fight for equality, or her name. She was known thenceforth as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. The Andersons had three children, one of whom - Louisa - went on to become a prominent campaigner for women's suffrage in the early 20th Century.
She continued to practise medicine in London and to pursue improved medical services for women. She created the London School of Medicine for Women and in 1876 saw an Act passed in Parliament enabling women to train and to practise as doctors, alongside men. In 1877, the London School of Medicine for Women became part of London University and in 1883 Garrett Anderson became Dean of the renamed London School of Medicine.
The New Hospital for Women in Marylebone proved to be too small for the growing number of women attending the practice. As a result, new premises were opened on Euston Road in 1890. In 1892, thanks to her continued campaigning, women were admitted to the British Medical Association (BMA). Garrett Anderson was elected President of the East Anglian branch of the BMA in 1897, in recognition of her work.
Retirement and Beyond
She retired from medicine and moved back to Suffolk in 1902. She continued to take an active interest in politics and was elected Mayor of Aldeburgh - the first woman mayor in England. That same year, at the age of 72, she was one of a number of women from The Militant Women's Social and Political Union who stormed the House of Commons in protest at the lack of recognition of women's rights5.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died in 1917.
Having resisted allowing the New Hospital for Women being named after her during her lifetime, it was not until after her death that it became the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital. In 1976, it was announced that the hospital was to close. A major national campaign was launched to save it and in 1979 Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, reprieved and invested £2.4 million in the hospital. The renovated hospital re-opened in 1984. Today, it provides services to over 16,000 women every year, with clinics including gynaecology, breast cancer screening and treatment, pre-menstrual syndrome, menopause, urology, and family planning.
The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital is a lasting memorial to a truly remarkable woman. But, perhaps more important is that women in Britain today take it for granted that they can be educated and work alongside men; they have access to gender-specific medical services; and they can not only vote, but serve in Parliament. Without practical visionaries like Garrett Anderson and her contemporaries this might not have come about.