Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: A Medical Pioneer

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (born 9 June 1836)

Born in London and unsatisfactorily educated (at least in her opinion--she was later to complain she had no opportunity to learn science or mathematics), Elizabeth Garrett was expected to do what women of her social class usually did: marry and become mothers.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson,
c. 1889
Instead, inspired by two women we have met before, the American doctor Elizabeth Blackwell and the English feminist Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett became a medical pioneer and political activist. 

After having been turned down by all the medical schools to which she applied (she was a woman), Elizabeth Garret devised a way to fulfill her goal of becoming a doctor. She trained as a nurse, studied with tutors, found a way into lectures and dissection rooms with male students, and, finally, arranged for private study through the Society of Apothecaries.

In 1865, via a loophole, she completed her medical exams, becoming the first English woman to earn a medical degree. (The Society of Apothecaries did not specifically forbid women from taking their exams and qualifying as doctors--but after Garrett qualified in this way, the loophole was closed.) Later in her career, in 1870, Garrett would complete a medical degree through the University of Paris, which was open to women students.

Meanwhile, unable to find a position after finishing her British training, Garrett opened her own practice in 1865. Within a year, she had opened a dispensary serving women and children--in 1866 alone, she treated 3,000 patients. There followed a series of firsts: Garrett became the first woman elected to the London School Board, the first woman appointed to a post a medical post in Britain (she was appointed to the East London Hospital for Children), co-founder of the first medical school for women (the London School of Medicine for Women), the first female member of the British Medical Association, and the first woman elected as mayor of a city in England (Aldeburh).

And she also became active in the women's suffrage movement. With Davies, in 1866, she presented a petition to Parliament asking for the vote for women and joined the British Women's Suffrage Committee. (We will meet up with Elizabeth Garrett's sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett later this week.)

Oh! And she did manage to do those things "expected" of a woman--she married (James Anderson, in 1871) and had three children. Elizabeth Garrett's daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, followed her mother into a medical career and was also active in the suffrage movement--she was arrested in 1912 and briefly imprisoned in Holloway Prison. 

There is a great biographical essay by Jacqueline Banerjee about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at The Victorian Web; you can access it by clicking here. Jo Manton's biography, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, is out of print but used copies are available. Jenifer Glyn's biography of the Garrett sisters, The Pioneering Garretts: Breaking the Barriers for Women, gives you a great look at the entire family (this book is also out of print, but used copies are available).