Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) was an English physician and suffragist, and the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon.
When Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was born, in 1836 there were no female doctors in Britain.
In 1860, Elizabeth Garrett spent six months as a surgery nurse at Middlesex Hospital, London, but as a woman, she was refused enrolment into the hospital’s Medical School. Garrett became an unwelcome presence among the male students, who in 1861 presented a memorial to the school against her admittance as a fellow student. She was ‘obliged’ to leave the Middlesex Hospital, but she did so with an honours certificate in chemistry and materia medica.
Garrett then applied to several medical schools, including Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews and The Royal College of Surgeons, all of which refused her admittance.
On discovering a loophole in the system in the charter of the Society of Apothecaries [that she could not be excluded on the basis of her sex], Garrett was admitted by ‘the back door’ in 1862. She finally took her exam in 1865, and obtained a licence (LSA) from the Society of Apothecaries to practise medicine, the first woman qualified in Britain to do so.
As a woman, Garrett could not take up a medical post in any hospital, so in late 1865, Garrett opened her own practice at 20 Upper Berkeley Street, London. At first patients were scarce- but the clinic gradually grew, and after six months in practice, she opened St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children, at Seymour Place- London.
When in 1865, there was an outbreak of cholera in Britain, affecting both rich and poor, in their panic, some people forgot any prejudices in relation to her being a female physician. The first death due to cholera occurred in 1866, Garrett tended to 3,000 new patients, who made 9,300 outpatient visits to the her newly opened dispensary.
On hearing that the Dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Sorbonne, Paris was in favour of admitting women as medical students, Garrett studied French so that she could apply for a medical degree. She moved to France and qualified at the University of Paris and became the first female doctor of medicine in France.
She set up in practice as a GP in London as the first British female doctor, and in 1876 helped usher through parliament an act that formally permitted women to be medics. That same year she was elected to the first London School Board, an office newly opened to women, receiving the highest vote among all the candidates.
In 1873 she 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. Subsequently, the BMA moved formally to exclude any women who might seek to follow her.
Garrett Anderson worked steadily at the development of the New Hospital for Women, and (from 1874) at the creation of the London School of Medicine for Women, where she served as its dean
Garrett Anderson was also active in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1866, she helped present petitions signed by more than 1,500 asking that female heads of household be given the vote. That same year, Garrett Anderson also joined the first British Women’s Suffrage Committee.
Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement often argued that if women could be trusted with lives, surely they could be trusted with the vote.
On 9 November 1908, she was elected mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor in England. Her father was mayor in 1889.
She died in 1917 and is buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Aldeburgh.