Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain
Faced with systemic prejudice that refused the opportunity to even study medicine, it required a loophole for the first woman to be able to take her examinations and qualify. Jonny Wilkes explores how Elizabeth Garrett Anderson gave a shot in the arm for women in medicine
In 1876, the Medical Act received royal assent by Queen Victoria, allowing for the first time for women to be licenced by a medical authority and opening the doors to university education in the field. This was a landmark moment, thanks in part to the campaigning, and the example, of a woman whose named had already been on the Medical Register for over a decade: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
She became the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor in September 1865 – or, at least, the first to do so openly. James Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley), had qualified some 50 years earlier, but by identifying and living as a man. A gifted long-serving surgeon in the British Army, Dr Barry’s gender was only revealed after their death.
Elizabeth Garrett, born in London in 1836, was fortunate to be raised in a prosperous household and a relatively progressive environment. She was educated at home and for a few years at a boarding school for girls, although she quickly became disappointed at the lack of teaching in mathematics and sciences. It was after reading about and meeting Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to be qualified as a doctor in the United States (in 1849), that a fiercely intelligent young Garret decided to turn her attentions to medicine.
This immediately presented a seemingly unsurmountable hurdle: no university or teaching hospital would allow a woman to attend as a student. Refused by every institution she approached, Garrett started studying privately, having tuition in physiology and anatomy, and began as a nursing student at Middlesex Hospital, where she managed to attend classes for the male students for a short while before complaints were made and she was banned.
Then Garrett realised something. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries did not explicitly forbid women from attending. It still took her father Newton threatening to sue if they did not let her in, but eventually she had the opportunity to take her examinations and she passed first time. Awarded the ‘Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries’, the qualification may not have carried the same weight as a doctorate of medicine, or MD, but it did mean her name was entered on the Medical Register. The Society immediately changed its rules to make sure another woman could not take advantage of the same loophole.
Garrett went on, with her father’s financial support, to open St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children in the Marylebone area of London, entirely for and staffed by women. In 1918, it would be renamed in her honour. As getting her full medical degree in Britain was still impossible in Britain, she travelled to France, taught herself the language and, in 1870, was awarded a MD from the University of Sorbonne in Paris.
The following year, she married James George Skelton Anderson, but that did not slow down the medical career she had fought so hard to build. Anderson went on to become the first woman to be granted membership of the British Medical Association in 1873, remaining the only female member for two decades, and founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1834, where she would become the dean in 1883.
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She had one last first to achieve, this time not as a doctor. From 1908, Anderson was mayor of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, making her the first woman in England to serve in that role. By the time of her death in 1917, aged 81, she had pioneered the field of medicine for women, been a trailblazer in the political arena, and, alongside her sister Millicent Fawcett, the prominent suffragist, campaigned vigorously for equal rights.
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
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