Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain

In 1876, the Medical Act received royal assent by Queen Victoria, allowing for the first time for women to be licensed by a medical authority and opening the doors to university education in the field. This was a historic moment, thanks in part to the campaign and the example of a woman whose name had already been on the Medical Record for more than 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. barry james (born Margaret Ann Bulkley), had qualified some 50 years earlier, but identifying and living as a man. A gifted surgeon who served for a long time in the British Army, Dr. Barry’s gender was only revealed after his death.

Elizabeth Garrett, born in London in 1836, was fortunate to grow up in a prosperous home and in a relatively progressive environment. She was educated at home and for a few years in an all-girls boarding school, though she soon became disillusioned by the lack of instruction in math and science. She went after reading and knowing elizabeth blackwellthe first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States (in 1849), that a fiercely intelligent young Garret decided to turn her attention to medicine.

Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, outside Westminster, with police officers in the background.

Emmeline Pankhurst, (centre right), founder with her daughter Christabel of the Women’s Social and Political Union, pictured with Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in England. (Image from Getty Images)

This immediately presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: no university or teaching hospital would allow a woman to attend as a student. Shunned by every institution she approached, Garrett began studying privately, taking classes 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 time. before complaints were filed and she was banned.

Then Garrett realized something. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries did not explicitly prohibit women from attending. It still took her father Newton to threaten to sue her if they didn’t let her in, but she finally got the chance to take her tests and passed the first time. She was ‘Licensed from the Society of Apothecaries’, her qualification may not have carried the same weight as a medical doctorate, or MD, but it did mean that her name was entered in the Medical Register. The Society immediately changed its rules to ensure that 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 female-staffed. In 1918, it would be renamed in her honor. As it was still impossible to obtain a full medical degree from her in Britain, she traveled to France, taught herself the language and, in 1870, obtained a medical doctorate from the University of the Sorbonne in Paris.

The following year, she married James George Skelton Anderson, but that didn’t stop the medical career she had worked so hard to build. Anderson became the first woman to be a member of the British Medical Association in 1873, she being the only female member for two decades, and she founded the London Medical School for Women in 1834, where she would become dean in 1883. .

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She had one last first to accomplish, this time not as a doctor. From 1908 Ella Anderson was Mayor of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, making her the first woman in England to hold that position. By the time of her death in 1917, at the age of 81, she had been a pioneer in the field of medicine for women, had been a pioneer in the political arena, and, along with her sister Millicent Fawcett, the noted suffragette, had campaigned vigorously for equal rights.

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