Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: Path-breaking Victorian

This past week I was reading about the grand Platinum Jubilee celebrations to mark 70 years on the throne of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. This is the longest reign of a monarch of Great Britain; the closest being the rule of Queen Victoria who reigned for 64 years—a period called the Victorian Era.

Coincidentally the same week I read two accounts about women in the Victorian Era, and could not help but wonder how much things have changed. The first was fiction–a ‘murder mystery’ which featured some women who attempted to defy the existing norms,  and the other was the true story of a woman who was a pathbreaker in changing how the role and status of women was perceived in that era. 

The reign of Queen Victoria was an extended period of peace, prosperity, progress, and essential social reforms for Britain; however, it was also characterized by widespread poverty, injustice, and social discrimination. There was a very strictly defined ‘class system’ that determined every aspect of social life.

There was also a very strong perception (and application) of gender roles. A woman’s place was clearly considered to be in the home, and domesticity and motherhood were considered by society at large to be a sufficient emotional fulfilment for females. Even the upper class women who were educated to some degree by private tutors were not encouraged to use their minds in any way that would distract them from their assigned roles. A telling paragraph in the novel: “Did you read it in a newspaper?” “Oh no” she lied immediately. She had not yet forgotten that ladies of good society would not do such a thing. Reading the newspaper overheated the blood; it as considered bad for health to excite the mind so much, not to mention, bad for the morals.

The rights which the women enjoyed were similar to those which were enjoyed by young children whereby they were not allowed to vote, sue or even own property. But these rights were to be questioned, and changes demanded by a group of women who pioneered the suffrage movement. Among these was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who broke many glass ceilings in her day.

Elizabeth Garrett was born on 9 June 1836 in Whitechapel, London, to Newson Garrett and his wife Louisa; the second of twelve children. Her father was originally a pawn broker who went on to become a successful businessman. The family moved to Aldeburgh in Suffolk when Elizabeth was very young. As a child, Elizabeth got her basic education from her mother and a governess. When she was 13 she was sent to a private boarding school near London where she was taught languages and literature, but not sciences and math. Unusual for the time, her parents encouraged their daughters to travel and pursue their ambitions. After completing school Elizabeth, although engaged in domestic duties, continued to study Latin and arithmetic, and read widely. It was accepted that she would marry and live the life of a lady.

When she was 22, a group of women started a magazine for women, English Woman’s Journal. Among these women was one Emily Davies, who became a dear friend. She invited Elizabeth to hear a lecture given by Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman physician. Elizabeth was so inspired by her namesake and her lecture that she decided that she wanted to become a doctor. A female studying medicine was unheard of at that time. But her father was supportive. She was denied admission in any medical school, so she enrolled as a nursing student at Middlesex Hospital and attended classes intended for male doctors. She also employed a tutor to study anatomy and physiology. But after complaints from the other students she was barred from the hospital; however Elizabeth continued to study on her own. She was determined to secure a qualifying diploma that could entitle her to put her name on the Medical Register. Unless a person’s name was listed on the Medical Register, that person could not legally practice medicine in England.

Elizabeth found a loophole: she registered to pursue a degree of Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries which did not specifically forbid women from taking their examinations. In 1865 she passed their exams and gained a certificate which enabled her to practise as a doctor. This was a shocking step; the Society subsequently changed its rules to prevent other women entering the profession this way. However Elizabeth obtained her licence to practise medicine in 1869; the first woman in Britain qualified to do so.

Even though she now had a licence, Elizabeth still could not get a medical post in any hospital. With her father’s financial backing, in 1866 she opened her own practice in London. A little later, towards her goal to establish a hospital for women staffed by women, Elizabeth set up St. Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children. Initially people were reluctant to consult a female physician, but an outbreak of cholera saw patients teeming to her clinic.

It was during this period that Elizabeth was also getting engaged with the issue of women’s rights. Her younger sister Millicent Fawcett was active in this growing movement; the two sisters with a group of like-minded women set up a discussion group that strongly influenced the battle for women’s education and empowerment.

Although Elizabeth had already obtained many ‘firsts’ she was still determined to achieve her original dream of a formal degree in medicine. So she taught herself French and successfully earned her MD degree from the University of Paris in 1870. The British Medical Register refused to recognize her qualification.

In 1870 Elizabeth became Visiting Medical Officer for the East London Hospital for Children. In 1872 Elizabeth transformed the St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children into the New Hospital for Women in London. The hospital specialised in women’s health and all of the staff were women. It was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918 and continued to appoint only female staff until the 1980s. Elizabeth also co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, the first place in Britain specifically intended to train women as doctors.

In 1871 Elizabeth married a businessman James Anderson, in a  wedding ceremony in which she did not take a ‘vow of obedience’;  she continued with her pioneering work even as she ran her own household and brought up her three children. 

Elizabeth’s determination paved the way for other women.  In 1876 an act was passed permitting women to enter the medical professions and the Medical Register. Today over 48 per cent of licenced doctors in UK are women.

Elizabeth continued to lecture at the London School of Medicine for Women for 23 years, and from 1883 she was also the School’s Dean. She was Senior Physician of the New Hospital of Women for 24 years and in 1896–97 she was President of the East Anglian branch of the British Medical Association. She also found time to write on medical topics, including a textbook for students.

In 1902, Elizabeth retired from her medical career and moved to the town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk. In 1908, at the age of 72, she became the Mayor of Aldeburgh; she was the first female mayor in England. In her final years, Elizabeth was a prominent member of the women’s movement and campaigned for equal rights for women. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died in Aldeburgh on 17 December 1917 at the age of 81, just two months before the Representation of People Act extended the right to vote to women over 30.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, with quiet determination and persistence, opened many doors, and paved the path that women take for granted today. 


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