Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett (1836–1917)

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Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett (1836–1917)

First British woman doctor and founder of the New Hospital for Women, the first hospital in England to be staffed entirely by women, and dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, England's first women's medical school. Name variations: Elizabeth Garrett. Born on June 9, 1836, in London, England; died on December 17, 1917, in Aldeburgh, England; second daughter of Newson Garrett (a successful merchant) and Louisa Dunnell Garrett (a housewife); attended Miss Browning's School for Girls, London, 1849–51; studied medicine privately and at various hospitals in Britain, 1860–65; received MD degree from the Sorbonne, 1870; married James Skelton Anderson (a successful ship owner and businessman), on February 9, 1871; children: Louisa Garrett Anderson; Margaret Skelton Anderson; Alan Garrett Anderson.

Moved to Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England (1841); attended lectures by Elizabeth Blackwell, an American doctor, and resolved to pursue a medical career (1859); passed examinations for London Society of Apothecaries, allowing her to practice medicine in Britain, and became the second woman (after Blackwell) listed on the British Medical Register (1865); helped found the Women's Suffrage Committee and opened a dispensary for women and children in London (1866); became first woman to receive an MD degree from the Sorbonne and became one of the first two women to be elected to the newly established London School Board (1870); opened the New Hospital for Women, the first hospital in Britain staffed entirely by women (1872); elected to the British Medical Association (1874); helped found the London School of Medicine for Women, the first medical school for women in Britain, and served as a lecturer and boardmember for the school (1874), and, as its dean (1883–1902); elected mayor of Aldeburgh, becoming the first female mayor in Britain (1908); published numerous articles on women in medicine, education for girls, and various medical subjects in publications such as The Edinburgh Review, The British Medical Journal, and The Times of London (1867–1910).

On March 2, 1859, the crowd filling the Marylebone Hall in London eagerly awaited the first in a series of lectures on "Medicine as a Profession for Ladies" to be delivered by the celebrated Elizabeth Blackwell , an American and the first woman doctor of modern times. For one young woman in the audience, however, Blackwell's talk would provide more than an evening of informative entertainment. Inspired by the lecture, Elizabeth Garrett, searching for a meaningful occupation to divert her from an idle life as a wealthy merchant's daughter, made the momentous decision to pursue a career in medicine. After many years of struggle and study, marked by rebuffs from the medical establishment and from virtually every British university and medical school, Garrett became the first British female doctor, opening the field for the thousands of women who followed.

Although born in London, Garrett grew up in the small coastal town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, England, where her family moved when she was five. She was the second child of Louisa Dunnell Garrett , a devoutly religious housewife, and Newson Garrett, a merchant who started his career as a pawnbroker and gradually amassed a small fortune from his shipping enterprise. The young Elizabeth's education was typical for the mid-Victorian period, when girls were expected to acquire a smattering of accomplishments (such as needlework and singing), marry young, and settle down to raise a large family, with no thought of higher education or a career. For several years, her mother taught Elizabeth and her older sister Louisa at home. When Elizabeth was ten, the family, by then prosperous, hired a governess whom, according to family legend, Elizabeth and Louisa teased mercilessly. The two then attended Miss Browning's School for Girls in London where they received solid training in writing and the French language. After a brief trip abroad and a visit to the famous Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Elizabeth returned to Aldeburgh in 1851 to assist with housekeeping duties and supervision of her brothers and sisters.

Victorian girls were not expected to strive for academic achievements—indeed, the colleges

and universities of England were closed to women. Nor could an active and intelligent young woman of the middle class pursue a career; it was considered disgraceful for women to work outside the home. The only occupation open to respectable ladies was to serve as a governess, an underpaid and often degrading employment undertaken only in cases of dire financial need. Thus, like thousands of Victorian girls, Elizabeth Garrett seemingly had no choice after the completion of her brief formal education but to live quietly with her parents, awaiting the inevitable marriage proposal. Garrett later wrote of her years as a dutiful daughter, "I was a young woman living at home with nothing to do in what authors call 'comfortable circumstances.' But I was wicked enough not to be comfortable. I was full of energy and vigour and of the discontent which goes with unemployed activities."

The years after 1851 were not completely idle, however. Garrett attempted to round out her uneven education, studying on her own and reading widely. On Sunday evenings, she held informal "Talks on Things in General" for her younger siblings in which she discussed current political topics. Garrett's own growing sense that women must play a larger role in the wider world may have rubbed off on the youngsters during these sessions, for several followed in their older sister's footsteps as pioneers for women's rights. Millicent Garrett (Fawcett , 1847–1929) became the preeminent leader of the women's suffrage movement in Britain and the president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Agnes and her cousin Rhoda Garrett became the first female interior decorators in Britain, thus opening another career to women. Alice followed Elizabeth onto the London School Board as one of the first women to hold public office. And Sam, the youngest brother, grew up to be an attorney who worked vigorously for women's admission to the legal profession.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, with tongue in cheek">

It is indeed far more wonderful that a healthy woman should spend a long life in comparative idleness, than that she should wish for some suitable work.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, with tongue in cheek

Perhaps the most important event of these otherwise quiet years in Aldeburgh was Garrett's meeting with Emily Davies , a young woman six years her elder. Davies was passionately committed to expanding educational and professional opportunities for women. (Indeed, she later founded Girton College, Cambridge, one of the first women's university colleges in England.) The two young women became fast friends, and Davies was to prove instrumental in Garrett's struggle to enter the medical profession. Davies proffered encouragement, along with level-headed, if a bit conservative, advice, and much practical assistance.

Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies were not the only people in England in the 1850s who believed that women must enter into a wider sphere of employment. In London, a group of women known as "The Ladies of Langham Place," after the location of their organization's offices, advocated women's academic and professional advancement through their magazine, The Englishwoman's Journal, and through their activities with the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. Garrett's sister Louisa, now married and living in London, was actively involved with this group of pioneering women and Emily Davies, too, had friends among the Langham Place circle. Through Barbara Bodichon , one of the founders of the Langham Place group, Garrett secured an invitation to the fateful lecture by Elizabeth Blackwell and received a personal introduction to the famous medical woman.

Although immediately impressed by Dr. Blackwell, Garrett felt no immediate calling to enter the medical profession herself. She only knew that she needed to find some worthwhile employment, preferably an occupation that would also lead to greater opportunities for other women as well. It was only after many serious discussions with her close friend Davies that Garrett decided the medical field should be opened to women and that she would be the one to attempt it. She later wrote:

It seemed to us that the duty of ministering as a physician does to the care of women and children would be work not unsuitable to a woman, and also that it was work they ought to be free to take up if they chose. Naturally neither of us knew much of the details of medical education, nor did we realize how long and sustained an effort would be needed before our end could be reached.

The general public, including Garrett's parents, were not quite so receptive to the idea of female doctors as Elizabeth and her friend had naively assumed. In mid-Victorian England, Ray Strachey noted in an early history of the women's emancipation movement, "the idea of women doctors was revolting to every sense; it was indecent, dangerous, and brazen, as well as new." Louisa Garrett vehemently objected to her daughter's novel career plans, citing the "disgrace" that it would bring down on the family. Indeed, it was not until Elizabeth achieved worldwide professional recognition in the medical field, as well as considerable financial success, that Mrs. Garrett became reconciled to her daughter's unorthodox lifestyle. Newson Garrett, too, initially resisted his daughter's entreaties to pursue medical studies, exclaiming that he found the whole idea of women doctors "disgusting." He abruptly changed his mind, however, after every prominent London physician canvassed by Garrett and his daughter refused to assist Elizabeth in her medical studies simply because she was a woman. Newson Garrett became so incensed that his beloved daughter had been rejected that he resolved not only to lend moral support to her efforts but also to provide her with whatever financial assistance she needed. Thereafter, Elizabeth Garrett's father was one of her most active and ardent supporters.

In 1860, following the advice of friends, Garrett began a six-month training period as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital in London. Only a few years earlier, the heroic work of Florence Nightingale and her "lady nurses" in the Crimean War had made nursing a respectable occupation for middle-class women like Garrett. Indeed, many people had suggested that Garrett abandon her plans to open the medical profession to women and become a nurse instead. (Garrett's rather flippant response to those who suggested the nursing option was that she preferred "to earn a thousand, rather than twenty pounds a year.") She entered Middlesex Hospital with no intention of becoming a nurse; rather, she hoped to prove that she had the physical, mental, and emotional stamina to withstand the rigors of medical practice. After three short months, Garrett had adapted so successfully to the hospital routine that she became, in effect, an unofficial medical student, receiving tutoring in various subjects from several doctors at the hospital and attending them on their rounds. However, Garrett's intelligence and medical skill made several male students uneasy, and they petitioned to eject Garrett from the medical training program. Fearing the loss of revenue if its male students withdrew, the powers of Middlesex Hospital reluctantly complied.

Garrett now faced a perplexing dilemma if she wished to continue her medical studies. Like many other occupations, medicine was becoming increasingly professionalized in the 19th century, with practitioners seeking to heighten their status by regulating training and professional conduct. Under the Medical Act of 1858, Britain set up a register of qualified doctors and established minimum criteria for registration as a medical professional. Although the Act did not specifically bar women from entering the profession, it did not require either that women be admitted to universities or medical schools offering the necessary training or that they be allowed to sit for the qualifying examinations to establish their credentials. Additionally, although Elizabeth Blackwell had successfully presented her American medical diploma to be listed on the British Medical Register, the Medical Council had subsequently decided to exclude holders of foreign medical degrees from registration. Garrett realized that she would need to obtain a British medical degree in order to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.

After an exhaustive search, Garrett discovered that the only medical examining body that could not legally exclude her from its examinations by virtue of her sex was the Society of Apothecaries, perhaps the least prestigious of the several examining boards. In order to meet the prerequisites laid down by the Apothecaries' Society, however, Garrett would need further medical training. Her efforts were stymied by the wholesale ban on women in institutions of higher learning. After the difficulties at Middlesex Hospital, no other hospital medical school would accept her. The University of London refused to accept women, claiming that it was forbidden under their charter, and the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland also rebuffed her attempts to enroll. When all options seemed to be closed off, the Society of Apothecaries finally agreed to recognize a private course of lectures, which Garrett easily arranged with medical men friendly to the cause of women doctors. In 1865, she passed the examination of the London Society of Apothecaries and was listed on the British Medical Register. The examiners were apparently quite relieved that they had not been compelled to rank the examination candidates because, they later explained, they would have been forced to put Elizabeth Garrett first.

Garrett then set to work to employ her hard-won skills and professional recognition. Although she certainly felt qualified to treat patients of both sexes, she realized that accepting male patients could create a scandal and damage the cause of female medical practitioners. In 1866, therefore, with the financial assistance of her father, Garrett opened a dispensary for women and children in a poor area of London. This small office, which would eventually grow into a hospital for women, was to remain the heart of Garrett's medical work until her retirement from practice. The services provided by Garrett—as well as the fact that she was a woman ministering to other women—clearly answered a need in the community. In its first five years of operation, Garrett's dispensary served 40,000 patients.

Garrett had realized from the beginning of her endeavors that opening the medical profession to women was merely one facet of the campaign to integrate women more fully into the public and professional life of Britain. Although busy with her medical practice, she also continued to work for women's emancipation in other areas. In 1866, she was one of the founding members of the Women's Suffrage Committee, established to secure the vote for women on the same terms as men. She and her good friend Emily Davies personally handed a massive women's suffrage petition to John Stuart Mill, an ardent supporter of women's rights, for presentation in Parliament (where it was defeated). In 1870, with certain municipal positions opened to women, Garrett ran for election to the London School Board, winning by a large majority.

Despite her active involvement in other facets of the women's movement, Garrett had not abandoned her role as pioneer in the medical profession. Her qualification to practice medicine through the Apothecaries' Society did not entitle Garrett to claim the designation "Medical Doctor" or "M.D." Although acknowledging that all avenues to the M.D. designation were closed to women in Britain and that a foreign M.D. degree would not be recognized by the British medical profession, Garrett nonetheless decided to sit for the M.D. exams at the Sorbonne in Paris, believing that "it would command more respect than the license from the [Apothecaries' Society] alone." Without taking time away from her busy medical practice to attend additional classes, Garrett took the series of examinations necessary for the degree in 1869 and 1870 and became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from the Sorbonne.

While pursuing her medical studies, she had neglected the social life normal for a woman of her position in Victorian England. She had received a marriage proposal from Henry Fawcett, a Cambridge economics professor who later became a member of Parliament and Cabinet official. Because Fawcett was blind, Garrett felt that she would have to abandon her own career in order to support his professional ambitions. She reluctantly refused his offer and Fawcett subsequently married Garrett's younger sister, Millicent. In 1869, however, through her volunteer work for a children's charity hospital in London's poor East End, Garrett met a fellow hospital board member, James Skelton Anderson, a businessman and shipping entrepreneur. Garrett and Anderson worked together on the board to ensure the efficient administration of the children's hospital and the proper qualifications of its practitioners. The two became good friends, and Anderson served as Garrett's campaign chair in her run for the London School Board.

When Anderson and Garrett became engaged late in 1870, however, many of her supporters, including her father, lamented the match, believing that Garrett would be forced to abandon her medical work once she was a married woman. Neither Garrett nor her fiance, however, felt that Garrett's marriage should compromise her professional role in the least. Shortly after her engagement, Garrett wrote to her sister Millicent Fawcett:

I do hope my dear you will not think I have meanly deserted my post. I think it need not prove to be so and I believe that [James] would regret it as much as I or you would. I am sure that the woman question will never be solved in any complete way so long as marriage is thought to be incompatible with freedom and with an independent career and think there is a very good chance that we may be able to do something to discourage this notion.

Garrett's marriage, and the birth of three children in 1873, 1874, and 1877, did not hamper her continuing work in medicine and in opening the profession to women. In 1872, she established the New Hospital for Women in London, an innovative institution staffed entirely by women in all its medical and administrative positions. In 1874, her professional accomplishments were recognized by her election to the British Medical Association, in which for many years she was to be the sole female member.

Securing the necessary education for a medical career continued to prove difficult for women, despite Garrett Anderson's pioneering work. In 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake and six other women had been allowed to matriculate at the University of Edinburgh Medical Faculty. However, the facilities available to women were still slender in relation to the growing demand for female medical education. Critics of women doctors raised numerous objections to women's medical studies, arguing that women students would distract the men from their work, that lecturers would not be able to discuss the details of human anatomy in mixed company without offending propriety, and that any serious intellectual work for women would impair their reproductive abilities.

In 1874, in response to the continued resistance to the admission of women to British medical schools, Jex-Blake and others proposed the founding of a medical school exclusively for women. Garrett had previously argued that, so long as British institutions barred female medical students, women should pursue their medical education abroad in countries that recognized a woman's right to medical training, although women with foreign degrees would not legally be allowed to practice medicine in Britain. Realizing, however, that the movement that was so important to her would be damaged by any signs of internal division, Garrett agreed to support the new school, which became The London School of Medicine for Women. She served on the school's board and as a lecturer and in 1883 was elected dean, a position she held until her retirement in 1902. Under her leadership, the school greatly expanded its facilities and the size of its student body, contributing to the increasing respectability of the female medical professional. One of Garrett's daughters, Louisa, joined the growing contingent of women doctors, receiving her MD degree in 1900. To her mother's satisfaction, Louisa Garrett Anderson was among the first contingent of medical women to volunteer for work in France at the outbreak of World War I.

After her retirement, Garrett continued to work for women's educational and professional advancement, writing articles on women in medicine and on the benefits of regular physical exercise and more rigorous academic training for girls. Her interest in women's rights continued throughout her later years as well. For many years, Garrett supported the work of her sister, Millicent Fawcett, in pursuing constitutional reform to secure the suffrage for women. In 1908, however, believing that constitutional reform was proceeding too slowly, Garrett joined the radical suffragist organization, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), and was actively involved in their suffrage marches and other activities. She resigned from the WSPU in 1911 when their tactics became more militant and violent. A pioneer for women to the end, Garrett was elected mayor of her girlhood hometown of Aldeburgh in 1908, becoming the first female mayor in Great Britain. During the last three years of her life, Garrett's mental capabilities slowly declined. She died on December 17, 1917, at her home in Aldeburgh.


Anderson, Louisa Garrett. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. London: Faber and Faber, n.d.

Manton, Jo. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. London: Methuen, 1964.

Mitchison, Naomi. "Elizabeth Garrett Anderson," in Revaluations. 1931 (reprinted by Haskell House, 1976).

suggested reading:

Rubinstein, David. A Different World for Women. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991 (biography of Anderson's younger sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, that includes information on the youth of the Garretts).

Strachey, Ray. The Cause. London: G. Bell, 1928.


Correspondence and papers mainly in the Anderson Library, Jersey, Great Britain, and the Fawcett Library, London, Great Britain.

Mary A. Procida , University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett (1836–1917)

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