Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: Britain’s Medical Trailblazer

“The passion of my life is to help women.”

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson grew up in a time when people would commonly say, “To learn arithmetic will not help my daughter to find a husband.” She would challenge this norm and, in doing so, achieve many firsts, including becoming the first woman doctor in Britain, the first female dean of a British medical school, the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board, and the first female mayor in Britain, amongst many other accomplishments.

“My strength lies in the extra amount of daring which I have as a family endowment. All Garretts have it.”

Elizabeth was born on June 9, 1836, in Whitechapel, London. She was the second of twelve children of Newson and Louisa. Unlike the prevailing opinion of the time, her father encouraged education and intellectual development for his daughters.

Elizabeth’s education began at home and continued to school, where she excelled. But her determination to become a doctor was sparked by a meeting with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to become a doctor in the United States.

To become a doctor, Elizabeth overcame many barriers, including pushback from her father. She wrote in a letter to a friend,

“I have opened my letter to tell you of a long conversation that I have just had with my father. 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…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 be little more than 31 years old and able to work for twenty years probably. I think he will probably come around in time, I mean to renew the subject pretty often.”

Elizabeth’s father did come around and, shortly after, wrote her the following letter,

“I have resolved in my own mind after deep and painful consideration not to oppose your wishes and views and as far as expense is involved I will do all I can, in just to my other children, to assist you in your study. As far as I am able to judge, the plan of going into a woman’s ward in one of the London hospitals as a nurse is the best, but here again I say I feel myself so totally unable to advise. Your dear mother is very anxious on this subject.”

While she had her father’s support, as Elizabeth began her medical journey, she faced mounting pressure to come home from her mother and other family members. These, too, she overcame. And soon, she became a medical doctor in Britain and also earned a medical degree in France at the University of Paris.

After establishing herself in the medical profession, Elizabeth turned her attention to the broader issues of women’s rights. She was inspired by the growing movement for women’s suffrage and recognized the vital importance of political power in achieving more comprehensive social reforms. In 1866, she became one of the first signatories to a petition for women’s suffrage, which was presented to the British Parliament. This petition was one of the early actions in what would become a widespread campaign for the vote.

Elizabeth believed that the enfranchisement of women was crucial for the improvement of their position in society and for the health of the nation. She argued that women’s perspectives and experiences were essential in shaping public policy, particularly in healthcare and education.

After many years of hard work, Elizabeth retired from medicine in 1902. She would, however, continue advocating for equality for years. Elizabeth passed away on December 17, 1917.

Black and white historical photograph of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a Victorian-era woman, intently reading a book. She is seated, with her head resting thoughtfully on her hand, wearing a formal dress with a high-collared shirt and patterned tie. Her hair is pulled back into a neat bun.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Notes

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Click here to read our snapshot biography of another medical pioneer, Elizabeth Kenny.

Sources

  • Anderson, Louisa Garrett. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 1836-1917. United Kingdom, Faber & Faber, 1939.
  • Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Photograph. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection.