Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Newson Garrett (1812–1893) and Louise Dunnell (1813–1903), was born in Whitechapel, London on 9th June 1836. Elizabeth's father, was the grandson of Richard Garrett, who founded the successful agricultural machinery works at Leiston.

Elizabeth's father had originally ran a pawnbroker's shop in London, but by the time she was born he owned a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. The business was a great success and by the 1850s Garrett could afford to send his children away to be educated.

After two years at a school in Blackheath, Elizabeth was expected to stay in the family home until she found a man to marry. However, Elizabeth was more interested in obtaining employment. While visiting a friend in London in 1854, Elizabeth met Emily Davies, a young women with strong opinions about women's rights. Davies introduced Elizabeth to other young feminists living in London.

In 1859 Garrett met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to qualify as a doctor. Elizabeth decided she also wanted a career in medicine. Her parents were initially hostile to the idea but eventually her father, Newson Garrett, agreed to support her attempts to become Britain's first woman doctor.

Garrett tried to study in several medical schools but they all refused to accept a woman student. Garrett therefore became a nurse at Middlesex Hospital and attended lectures that were provided for the male doctors. After complaints from male students Elizabeth was forbidden entry to the lecture hall.

Garrett discovered that the Society of Apothecaries did not specify that females were banned for taking their examinations. In 1865 Garrett sat and passed the Apothecaries examination. As soon as Garrett was granted the certificate that enabled her to become a doctor, the Society of Apothecaries changed their regulations to stop other women from entering the profession in this way. With the financial support of her father, Elizabeth Garrett was able to establish a medical practice in London.

Elizabeth Garrett was now a committed feminist and in 1865 she joined with her friends Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss to form a woman's discussion group called the Kensington Society. The following year the group organized a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.

Although Parliament rejected the petition, the women did receive support from Liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett. Elizabeth became friendly with Fawcett, the blind MP for Brighton, but she rejected his marriage proposal, as she believed it would damage her career. Fawcett later married her younger sister Millicent Garrett.

In 1866 Garrett established a dispensary for women in London (later renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital) and four years later was appointed a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. Elizabeth was determined to obtain a medical degree and after learning French, went to the University of Paris where she sat and passed the required examinations. However, the British Medical Register refused to recognize her MD degree.

During this period Garrett became involved in a dispute with Josephine Butler over the Contagious Diseases Acts. Josephine believed these acts discriminated against women and felt that all feminists should support their abolition. Garrett took the view that the measures provided the only means of protecting innocent women and children.

Although she was a supporter of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) she was not an active member during this period. According to her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, she thought "it would be unwise to be identified with a second unpopular cause. Nevertheless she gave her whole-hearted adherence."

The 1870 Education Act allowed women to vote and serve on School Boards. Garrett stood in London and won more votes than any other candidate. The following year she married James Skelton Anderson, a co-owner of the of the Orient Steamship Company, and the financial adviser to the East London Hospital.

Like other feminists at the time, Elizabeth Garrett retained her own surname. Although James Anderson supported Elizabeth's desire to continue as a doctor the couple became involved in a dispute when he tried to insist that he should take control of her earnings.

Elizabeth had three children, Louisa Garrett Anderson, Margaret who died of meningitis, and Alan. This did not stop her continuing her medical career and in 1872 she opened the New Hospital for Women in London, a hospital that was staffed entirely by women. Elizabeth Blackwell, the woman who inspired her to become a doctor, was appointed professor of gynecology.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson also joined with Sophia Jex-Blake to establish a London Medical School for Women. Jex-Blake expected to put in charge but Garrett believed that her temperament made her unsuitable for the task and arranged for Isabel Thorne to be appointed instead. In 1883 Garrett Anderson was elected Dean of the London School of Medicine. Sophia Jex-Blake was the only member of the council who voted against this decision.

After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Elizabeth's sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was elected president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. By this time Elizabeth was a member of the Central Committee of the NUWSS.

In 1902 Garrett Anderson retired to Aldeburgh. Garrett Anderson continued her interest in politics and in 1908 she was elected mayor of the town - the first woman mayor in England. When Garret Anderson was seventy-two, she became a member of the militant Women's Social and Political Union. In 1908 was lucky not to be arrested after she joined with other members of the WSPU to storm the House of Commons. In October 1909 she went on a lecture tour with Annie Kenney.

However, Elizabeth left the WSPU's in 1911 as she objected to their arson campaign. Her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson remained in the WSPU and in 1912 was sent to prison for her militant activities. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was upset when she heard the news and wrote to her sister: "I am in hopes she will take her punishment wisely, that the enforced solitude will help her to see more in focus than she always does." However, the authorities realised the dangers of her going on hunger strike and released her.

Evelyn Sharp spent time with Elizabeth and Louisa Garrett Anderson at their cottage in the Highlands: "Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who had a summer cottage in that beautiful part of the Highlands. I went there on both occasions with her daughter Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and we had great times together climbing the easier mountains and revelling in wonderful effects of colour that I have seen nowhere else except possibly in parts of Ireland.... It was, however, so entertaining to meet both these famous public characters in the more intimate and human surroundings of a summer holiday that we did not grudge the time given to working up a suffrage meeting in the village instead of tramping about the hills. Old Mrs. Garrett Anderson-old only in years, for there was never a younger woman in heart and mind and outlook than she was when I knew her before the war was a fascinating combination of the autocrat and the gracious woman of the world."

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died in 17th December 1917.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In 1939, Louisa Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, wrote about attitudes towards girls' education in the 19th century.

Men were believed to dislike "blue-stockings", so that parents thought the serious education of their daughters superfluous: deportment, music and a little French would see them through. 'To learn arithmetic will not help my daughter to find a husband was a common point of view. A governess at home, for a short period, was the usual fate of the girls. Their brothers might go to public schools and university but home was considered the right place for their sisters. Some parents sent their daughters to a finishing school, but good schools for girls did not exist. Their teachers were untrained and ill-educated. No public examinations accepted female candidates.

To his daughters, Newson Garrett opened up the windows of the world by sending them to boarding school… He took trouble in the choice of school. Finally it was decided that Louie and Elizabeth should go on to an 'Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen' at Blackheath, kept by Miss Browning and her sister… After two years at Blackheath, Louie and Elizabeth left, their education considered to be at an end.

(2) In 1859, the 23-year-old, Elizabeth Garrett (Anderson), met Emily Davies when she was staying at Annie Crowe's house. Emily and Elizabeth became close friends. Emily told Elizabeth about how Elizabeth Blackwell had qualified as a doctor in the USA. With Emily's encouragement, Elizabeth decided that she would be a doctor. On 15 June 1860, Elizabeth wrote to Emily to tell her how her father had reacted to the news.

At first he was very discouraging, to my astonishment then, but now I fancy he did it as a forlorn hope to check me; he said the whole idea was so disgusting that he could not entertain it for a moment. I asked what there was to make doctoring more disgusting than nursing, which women were always doing, and which ladies had done publicly in the Crimea. He could not tell me. When I felt rather overcome with his opposition, I said as firmly as I could, that I must have this or something else, that I could not live without some real work, and then he objected that it would take seven years before I could practise. I said if it were seven years I should then be little more than 31 years old and able to work for twenty years probably. I think he will probably come round in time, I mean to renew the subject pretty often.

(3) In July 1860, Newson Garrett agreed to financially support his daughter's attempts to become a doctor. Newson approached his friend, William Hawes, and asked him if he could arrange medical training for Elizabeth Garrett. An account of what happened next appears in Louisa Garrett Anderson's book Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Mr. Hawes advised Elizabeth to go into a surgical ward at the Middlesex Hospital for a preliminary period of six months. He could arrange this, he said. It was to test her resolution that Mr. Hawes suggested a surgical ward where conditions at that time, even in the best hospitals, were bad. Mr. Hawes knew that the sights, sounds and smells in a surgical ward would provide a searching test. In 1860 bacteriology was in its infancy and the connection between living germs and wound infection had occurred to no one. The mortality after major operations was appalling, and even in trivial cases infection might occur. For ward visits a frock-coat was worn and for the coat's sake it was exchanged for an old one before the surgeon entered the theatre. Usually he washed his hands after operating, not necessarily before. Gloves were not worn. Sterilization of ligatures and instruments was unknown.

(4) In 1863 male doctors at Middlesex Hospital issued a statement on the subject of women doctors.

The presence of a young female in the operating theatre is an outrage to our natural instincts and is calculated to destroy the respect and admiration with which the opposite sex is regarded.

(5) While Elizabeth Garrett was training at Middlesex Hospital she constantly received letters asking her to give up her plans to become a doctor. Elizabeth wrote about this pressure to Emily Davies on 17th August 1860.

I have had a letter from my mother… she speaks of my step being a source of life-long pain to her, that it is a living death, etc. By the same post I had several letters from anxious relatives, telling me that it was my duty to come home and thus ease my mother's anxiety.

(6) Louisa Garrett Anderson describes her mother's progress in 1861 at Middlesex Hospital in her book Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Elizabeth obtained a certificate of honour in each class examination; she did so well indeed that the examiner in sending her the list added, 'May I entreat you to use every precaution in keeping this a secret from the students?' In June trouble arose. The visiting physician asked his class a question, none of the men could answer and Elizabeth gave the right reply. The students were angry and petitioned for her dismissal. A counter-petition was sent to the committee but she was told she would be admitted to no more lectures although she might finish those for which she had paid fees.

(7) In July 1863, Elizabeth Garrett applied to Aberdeen Hospital for medical training. On 29th July the hospital replied to her request.

I must decline to give you instruction in Anatomy… I have a strong conviction that the entrance of ladies into dissecting-rooms and anatomical theatres is undesirable in every respect, and highly unbecoming… it is not necessary for fair ladies should be brought into contact with such foul scenes… Ladies would make bad doctors at the best, and they do so many things excellently that I for one should be sorry to see them trying to do this one.

(8) After Elizabeth Garrett qualified as a doctor in 1865 she established a dispensary in London. Lord and Lady Amberley met Elizabeth at John Stuart Mill's home in Blackheath. Lady Amberley recorded the meeting in her diary.

We dined at six (excellent dinner) delightful general talk, it was most pleasant. The talk was of Comte, George Eliot and her new book Felix Holt… on Herbert Spencer's theory of the sun coming to an end and losing all its force.

At ten John Stuart Mill sent us and Miss Garrett home in his carriage and we had a nice talk on the way home. Her dispensary opens next week. She had much difficulty in becoming a doctor from want of facility for women to learn. She would not mind attending men but does not do it, on account of what would be said. We got home at eleven having enjoyed our day immensely.

(9) Elizabeth Garrett finally received her medical degree by taking an examination at Paris Medical School. On 20th June 1870 she received a letter of congratulations from Sophia Jex-Blake and the other six women training to be doctors in Edinburgh.

Our hearty congratulations on the brilliant success at Paris which has at length crowned your many years of arduous work - work whose difficulties perhaps no one can estimate so well as ourselves. And while congratulating you on receiving the highest honour of your profession from one of the finest medical schools in the world, we desire to express also our appreciation of the example you have afforded to others, and the honour you have reflected on all women who have chosen medicine as their profession.

(10) Evelyn Sharp, Unfinished Adventure (1933)

There were occasional, very occasional, holidays at home during the years of the suffrage agitation. Two that stand out especially in my memory were spent at Newtonmore in Inverness-shire. Here I was the guest of Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who had a summer cottage in that beautiful part of the Highlands. I went there on both occasions with her daughter Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and we had great times together climbing the easier mountains and revelling in wonderful effects of colour that I have seen nowhere else except possibly in parts of Ireland. Only those who were engulfed in the preoccupations of those militant years could appreciate what it meant to us to get away from it all for a week or two, although our peace was twice invaded by the campaign we thought we had left behind, when Mrs. Fawcett (my hostess's sister) and Mrs. Pankhurst stayed with us, each in the course of conducting a speaking tour. It was, however, so entertaining to meet both these famous public characters in the more intimate and human surroundings of a summer holiday that we did not grudge the time given to working up a suffrage meeting in the village instead of tramping about the hills.

Old Mrs. Garrett Anderson-old only in years, for there was never a younger woman in heart and mind and outlook than she was when I knew her before the war was a fascinating combination of the autocrat and the gracious woman of the world. I thought one of her brothers summed her up rather delightfully, one day, when, contrary to everybody's entreaties and advice, she insisted on clambering down a steep incline under the unshakable impression that it was a short cut home. "You must make allowances, I suppose, for her being the first woman doctor," he observed, when she had had time to realise her error and he was setting off to fetch her back. Undoubtedly, like Florence Nightingale and other reformers who have had to fight both prejudice and vested interests, if Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had been the sweetly reasonable person who always believes what she is told without questioning it, she would not have been the pioneer who opened the medical profession to women. In her own home she was a most hospitable and lovable hostess, and had a delicious sense of humour, which may have been one reason why she was instantly attracted towards the militant branch of the suffrage movement when it became prominent. Her daughter, who brought the same gifts of courage and perception, so rare in combination, to the service of the same cause, inherited all her mother's brains and culture, and more than her personal charm and gentleness. Her friendship was one of those I gained at that troublous time, and it offered generous compensation for many losses.

There was a strong family likeness in all the Garretts ; and their fine sterling qualities, added to much that was personally attractive, made me feel proud to be a member of the house party that included three of the sisters of the older generation. Miss Agnes Garrett used to accompany Mrs. Fawcett everywhere, and when they both joined us at Newtonmore, the conversation became noticeably more racy, enlivened as it was with many excellent anecdotes gathered in their wanderings about the world. Nothing seemed to daunt these doughty women, and although I have always rather prided myself on wearing suitable clothes and yielding easily to the demands of a simple country life, I felt nothing but an artificial inhabitant of cities when I saw them tuck up their skirts - there was plenty to tuck up in those days - and don indescribable boots, before starting out to brave inclement weather and face really difficult rambles in the mountains above Speyside. I wondered sometimes if, thirty or forty years later, I should be able at the same age to show half their energy and unassailable good health.