Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Happy Birthday to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman (who didn’t keep her gender a secret) to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon by having first crossed the English channel and becoming the first female doctor of medicine in France. She was also the first woman in the country to be elected to a school board and Britain’s first female mayor, as well as the co-founder of the first hospital staffed entirely by women and the first female dean of a British medical school. Needless to say, she was also a kickass suffragette!

Elizabeth Garrett in 1860s

She was born in VERY humble circumstances on 9 June 1836 in Whitechapel, London, an area full of (not to hedge words) tenements and slums. Her father, Newson Garrett, worked in a pawn shop and her mother, Louisa Dunnell Garrett, was an innkeeper’s daughter. By all the Victorian “rules” of eugenics (another name for the former biases toward blood and breeding), the eleven Garrett children should hope for nothing more than to remain in the working class … if they were lucky. Instead, they thrived.

It helps that Garrett’s parents were two smart cookies. Her father worked his way up to manager of the pawnshop AND learned to be a silversmith, earning enough to hire a governess to teach his girls and move out of the city to Aldeburgh in 1840. Early the next year he somehow figured out a way to buy the business of Osborne and Fennell, barley and coal merchants at Snape Bridge. The business prospered under Garrett, and he was able to invest some of his newly-earned riches in the further education of his children. The Garretts sent their two eldest daughters, 15 year old Louisa and 13 year old Elizabeth, to Boarding School for Ladies in Blackheath, London.

A school, Elizabeth learned to love reading but was incredibly frustrated by the lack of mathematics and sciences in the curriculum. By 1850, the Garrett family had become wealthy, and were able to both build a mansion, Alde House, and send Louisa and Elizabeth on a short tour abroad when they finished in 1851. Garrett spent the next nine years at home, living the life of a pampered upper-class Victorian, but she was too intelligent to give up education, so she studied arithmetic, Latin, and the sciences on her own.

In 1859 Garrett when to visit her married elder sister in London, where she joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women and attended lectures by Elizabeth Blackwell, who had fought tooth and nail to become the first female doctor in the United States in 1849. (My oldest daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth, in Blackwell’s honor). After Dr Blackwell’s lectures on “Medicine as a Profession for Ladies”, Garrett asked for, and was granted, a private audience with the American physician.

Soon thereafter, Elizabeth Garrett told her father that she wanted to become a physician as well. Her father was initially opposed to it, reasonably fearing the sociocultural consequences to his daughter, but in he end he couldn’t bear to see his brilliant child stifled. He promised to give Elizabeth all the financial and emotional support she needed.

This support became the key to Garrett’s eventual success. She tried everything she could to get into medical school in a more traditional way —  she became a surgical nurse at Middlesex Hospital, London in August 1860 to prove her fitness for medicine, but was nonetheless denied entry to the hospital’s Medical School. She was determined to get her degree anyway. Thankfully, a rich father allowed her to  but was take private tuition in Latin, Greek and materia medica with the hospital’s apothecary. Her father also paid for her to be tutored in anatomy and physiology. Her innate skills and her social standing enabled her to eventually gain admittance to she the medical school’s dissecting room and chemistry lectures. This vexed the male students, who presented a memorial to the school against her admittance as a fellow student” in 1861.

Middlesex Hospital’s med school bowed to pressure from the students, but they had the decency to give Garrett her honours certificate in chemistry and materia medica before giving her the boot.

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. A companion to her in this struggle was the lesser known Dr Sophia Jex-Blake. Whilst both are considered “outstanding” medical figures of the late 19th century, Garrett was able to obtain her credentials by way of a “side door” through a loophole in admissions at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. Having privately obtained a certificate in anatomy and physiology, she was admitted in 1862 by the Society of Apothecaries who, as a condition of their charter, could not legally exclude her on account of her sex. [There were female apothecaries in Medieval England.] She continued her battle to qualify by studying privately with various professors, including some at the University of St Andrews, the Edinburgh Royal Maternity and the London Hospital Medical School.

In 1866, Garrett set up her own practice, where she helped save thousands of lives during a cholera epidemic, and joined the first British Women’s Suffrage Committee. A doctor in all but name, she was still determined to get her degree to prove it. When she heard that the dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Sorbonne, in Paris, was open to the idea of female medical students, she promptly began boning up on her French and applied.

She was accepted to Sorbonne and FINALLY got her medical degree in 1870 “after some difficulty”.

After Garrett returned triumphantly to London she was not only elected to the first London School Board, which (in combination with her medical degree) made her a target of ridicule in the patriarchal press.

Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_M.D mocked

Mere cultural condemnation couldn’t daunt Dr Garrett. Fortunately, others recognized her value, and she became the first woman in the UK to obtain a medical position when she was given a post as one of the visiting physicians for the East London Hospital for Children.

She also did something very unexpected in 1871; she married James George Skelton Anderson. Suffragettes and career women were often warned that if they did not conform to a more acceptable type of feminity then they would never be given the option to marry and have children. Many of these early challengers to gender norms did not want to marry, so it was hardly a threat, but it WAS a method of discouraging women who wished for husband and children from trying to have careers lest they lose all chance of marriage and reproduction. Elizabeth Garrett was thus a role model in more ways than one – she showed women could be doctors AND happily married women AND mothers if they wanted.

In 1873 Dr Garrett Anderson became a member of the British Medical Association (BMA) and had her first child, Louisa Garrett Anderson (who would also become a famous surgeon). Shortly after having her daughter, Dr Garrett Anderson discovered that the only thing she didn’t have enough of was TIME. She resigned from her position on the School Board and the East London Hospital for Children so she could concentrate her efforts on her private practice, which she had expanded into the New Hospital for Women and Children the year before. In 1874 she had another daughter, Margaret, and moved her growing New Hospital to Marylebone. Tragically, Margaret died of meningitis as an infant in 1875. Rather than succumbing to grief, Dr Garrett Anderson created the London School of Medicine for Women with fellow medical and feminist pioneer, Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, where she served as a lecturer and taught other women to become physicians as well.

Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson 1889

She continued to work at the med school for the rest of her career. In 1877 Dr Garrett Anderson had her third and final child, a son named Alan Garrett Anderson, who grew up to become a business magnate like his father and maternal grandfather, as well as a Member of Parliament.

Many other people would have justifiably rested on their laurels, but not Dr Garrett. Not only did she maintain a private practice and teach medicine, she served as dean of the Medical School for Women from 1883 to 1902, and became a member of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1889. In 1897, Garrett Anderson was elected president of the East Anglian branch of the BMA.


Dr. Garrett Anderson loved medicine, but she loved her husband and family even more. When her husband’s health began to falter, she retired to Aldeburgh with him in 1902 to enjoy her time with him and her elderly mother. They subsequently moving into Alde House after the death of Elizabeth’s mother the next year. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson lived quietly and domestically until her beloved husband died of stroke in 1907. Without him to care for, her ferocious intellect and energy needed further outlets.

She decided politics and women’s suffrage would be the ideal area for her efforts, and she ran for mayor of Aldeburgh. She won the election on 9 November 1908, becoming the United Kingdom’s first female mayor. She also became increasingly militant in her suffragette activities. She and her daughter participated in the Black Friday protests of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) on 18 November 1910, during which hundreds of suffragettes were assaulted by police.

NPG x32106; Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; Emmeline Pankhurst

After this incident, Dr Garrett Anderson resigned her mayoral duties and devoted herself fighting for women’s rights along side her daughter and her sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, until her death on 17 December 1917 at age 81.

Happy Birthday, Dr Garrett Anderson. You continue to be an inspiration!

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