Elizabeth Garrett, (b. Whitechapel 1836) was brought up in Aldeburgh, Suffolk where she eventually retired but it is in Bloomsbury that we can still see evidence of the legacy left by the first woman to qualify in England as a physician.
When Elizabeth Garrett entered her name on the Medical Register in 1866 she made history. She went on making history throughout her life. Earlier that year, with Emily Davies (founder of Girton College) she presented the first women’s suffrage petition to Parliament. Four years later, she was one of three women elected to the new London Schools’ Board, topping the poll with a whopping 47,858 votes (the runner up polled 13,494).
Elizabeth broke convention when she continued her career after marriage to Skelton Anderson in 1871 and raising children. She established a hospital for women staffed by women and became Dean of the first medical school for women. Even in retirement back in Aldeburgh, Elizabeth continued to make history when in 1908 she became the first woman in England to be elected Mayor.
The struggle to qualify as a doctor
For Elizabeth to qualify as a medical practitioner was an extraordinary achievement at a time when neither the professions nor the universities were open to women. Elizabeth needed all her “indomitable perseverance and pluck”, as the British Medical Journal was later to describe it, to achieve her goal. She began her studies in August 1860 as a nurse on a surgical ward at the Middlesex Hospital, observing and attending lectures until a group of (male) students, annoyed by her aptitude and diligence, threatened to leave for other medical schools if she was allowed to stay. After her dismissal she wrote to all the examining bodies in England and Scotland. Only the Society of Apothecaries permitted her to register as their constitution did not specify men but referred to “persons” desirous of practicing medicine. If they thought she would be daunted and fade away, they reckoned without her tenacity and ability to find teachers and classes outside the mainstream.
She got herself apprenticed and attended lectures at the Royal Institution, the South Kensington Museum and the Pharmaceutical Society. She spent a year in Scotland studying privately in Edinburgh and St Andrews, before returning to London where, extraordinarily for a middle class woman of the time, she lived alone in a room in Whitechapel. She studied nursing at the London Hospital and clinical practice at the London Dispensary. This was an overstretched clinic for poor people in Spitalfields that saw 2,000 patients a year and dispensed medicine in re-purposed beer bottles. It is also, where she later met her husband.
Once persuaded, Elizabeth’s father was a staunch champion. As well as financial support he took legal advice on her behalf, threatening litigation when the Society of Apothecaries attempted to refuse to examine her. After reluctantly admitting her as a Licentiate, that learned body took steps to ensure that the word ‘person’ in its governing document was replaced by the more comfortable ‘man’, thus closing the loophole she had so successfully exploited.
From St Mary’s Dispensary to the New Hospital for Women
Within six months of setting up, Elizabeth Garrett L.S.A. (as her brass door plate described her) decided to supplement her fledgling private practice (the only professional path then possible) and gain clinical experience by opening her own outpatients’ dispensary in a crowded and deprived area of Marylebone.
The dispensary was a runaway success, initially with local women willing to pay a penny for a consultation. As word spread, women came from all over London and further afield. Elizabeth’s private practice also grew. In 1874 one of her patients was Eleanor, nineteen-year-old daughter of Karl Marx, the famous German philosopher. Elizabeth treated her for nervous exhaustion prescribing a regime we would recognise today: fewer cigarettes, regular meals, purposeful occupation and exercise!
In 1872 Elizabeth took larger premises on Marylebone Road and the New Hospital for Women opened. By then Elizabeth Garrett LSA had become Elizabeth Garrett MD, having qualified (in French) at the Sorbonne in June 1870, the first woman MD to qualify in Paris. She was elected to the British Medical Association in 1873.
For Elizabeth the role of the hospital was as much about enabling women to enter the medical profession as about medical treatment. She was adamant that her hospital should be staffed exclusively by women, though at the time Elizabeth was still the only woman employed who could carry out the surgical operations that were becoming an increasing part of the hospital’s work.
Men were engaged as consultants when required, but not on the staff. Sisters were definitely doing it for themselves, as a later generation of feminists put it. It seems astounding now that a relatively newly qualified doctor with no formal training in surgery would feel obliged, as Elizabeth Garrett did, to perform operations. Not all were successful. In the 1880s concerns raised by colleagues about the safety of some procedures were followed by more than one resignation.
Teaching future generations
Elizabeth wanted to open the professions to women; educating and supporting women to become doctors was fundamentally important to her. So it may be surprising to learn that when Sophia Jex-Blake sought her support for a medical school for women in London, Elizabeth refused. She believed a qualification solely for women would be seen as inferior and women should do as she had done and gain their qualifications abroad. This was all very well for those with the financial backing, the knowledge of a foreign language and the stamina. Sophia, who with six other women had been accepted to study medicine in Edinburgh but denied graduation, could not agree. The day before the Council’s inaugural meeting, she sent Elizabeth a letter that forced to her to realise that both her own reputation and that of any future school, would suffer without her support. She attended the Council which voted unanimously: ‘that a school be founded in London with a view of educating women in medicine and enabling them to pass such examinations as would place their names on the Medical Register’.
The London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW) opened in Henrietta (now Hunter) Street and in October 1874 with fourteen students and Elizabeth closely involved. After some anxiety, arrangements were made with the Royal Free Hospital, then in nearby Gray’s Inn Road, to provide clinical training and a timely act of parliament ‘enabled’ examining bodies to award qualifications to women.
In 1893 Elizabeth became Dean and retired from the staff of the Hospital to concentrate on the school. The smart purpose-built school with specialist facilities that now houses the Hunter Street Medical Centre was built on Elizabeth’s watch replacing several small houses that comprised the original college.
When Princess Louise paid a call on Elizabeth, she asked that her mother not be told; Queen Victoria did not approve of women doctors. Victoria became a supporter when she learned that women in India were denied medical attention as there were no female doctors and women could not be examined by men. Elizabeth encouraged women to work in India. Dr Edith Pechey-Phipson, one of the Edinburgh students who had done so, raised a fund to support Rukmabhai, a young Indian woman to study in London. Rukmabhai had been involved in one of the most publicised court cases of nineteenth century Bombay (Mumbai). The man to whom she had been married when they both were children (but with whom she had never lived and refused to live with) sued for restitution of his conjugal rights. Rukmabhai’s courtroom avowal that she would rather face imprisonment than live with him prompted a campaign for a change in the law for all women and support for Rukmabhai to study as a doctor. When she qualified from the LSMW Dr Rukmabhai returned to India to head a hospital in Pune and later became Chief Medical Officer of Hospitals in Surat and Rajkot. The LSMW eventually had enough Indian students to open an Indian women’s hostel.
A family affair
Aspects of the interior of both buildings were designed by Agnes Garrett, Elizabeth’s sister who with her cousin Rhoda had been apprenticed to Brydon. Elizabeth’s daughter Louisa, who graduated from the LSMW with degrees in medicine and surgery, was later employed there.
Part of the original hospital, which was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital after her death, remains within the new glass and steel offices of Unison, the Trade Union and houses the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery. Elizabeth’s name lives on in the maternity wing of University College Hospital.
Sue McCarthy Capital Walks in London
Jo Manton (1965) Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Routledge 2019
Geddes, J. (2010). Too high a percentage of failures’? Cover-up at the New Hospital for Women. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 103. 348-51. 10.1258/jrsm.2010.100064. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2930920/
Rachel Holmes (2015) Eleanor Marx: a life Bloomsbury