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Elizabeth the first - our greatest East Anglian?

PUBLISHED: 14:36 18 March 2014

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who overcame the odds, and much opposition from the establishment, to become the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who overcame the odds, and much opposition from the establishment, to become the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor.

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Elizabeth Garrett Anderson didn't care what women were allowed to do. She just did it. In a new series honouring Great East Anglian women, Steven Russell honours England's first woman doctor

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson as Mayor of Aldeburgh.
 Picture from The Pioneering Garretts - Breaking the Barriers for Women, by Jenifer Glynn, published by Continuum in 2008.Elizabeth Garrett Anderson as Mayor of Aldeburgh. Picture from The Pioneering Garretts - Breaking the Barriers for Women, by Jenifer Glynn, published by Continuum in 2008.

It’s true her profile has risen much higher in the past decade, but there are still no statues in Suffolk of the woman we should laud as THE Number One role model for young women the length and breadth of Britain.

No-one else can trump the achievements of the corn merchant’s daughter who fought gender prejudice and the closed ranks of the establishment. She was the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor.

We ought to be thinking “Wow!” Every day. Especially as we walk in her footsteps in Suffolk.

There are those reading this who will say: “Oh, we know all about her…” But until we have a lasting memorial to Elizabeth’s skills and staying power, I for one won’t be shutting up.

Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (left) and women's rights campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst outside the Houses of Parliament in 1910.Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (left) and women's rights campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst outside the Houses of Parliament in 1910.

Just think what life was like for women back in the 1800s: more drudgery than dreaming. By the time the new century dawned, the 1,740,800 women employed in domestic service in 1900 still dwarfed the number of female teachers (124,000) and nurses (68,000).

For most of the 1800s, the thought of female doctors would have been laughed at. But that would change – and it was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who cracked that particular glass ceiling (though not without much hammering).

England owes much to the Garretts. Not only was there Elizabeth but sister Millicent, a dogged campaigner for equal rights who became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in the 1890s.

Something said by Elizabeth in 1864 is telling: “My strength lies in the extra amount of daring which I have as a family endowment. All Garretts have it.”

The family was rooted in Aldeburgh and Snape – six sisters, four brothers and a string of cousins close by.

Father Newson built the maltings at Snape – then a working industrial building; today a tourist destination with its collection of shops, restaurants and galleries, and the stunning hall that hosts concerts of international quality.

Leiston-born Newson was the third son of Richard Garrett, the successful manufacturer of agricultural machinery. Newson moved to London, meeting and marrying Louisa, and managed his father-in-law’s pawnbroking business in Whitechapel. Elizabeth was born above the shop on June 9, 1836.

Ultimately, city life wasn’t to her father’s taste and in 1840 he moved his family to Aldeburgh, where they lived in a house opposite the church. The following year he bought the corn and coal enterprise at Snape Bridge.

Business was good. Within a few years he had warehouses on both sides of the bridge, owned or part-owned about half Aldeburgh’s 22 coasting vessels, became the local shipping agent for Lloyds, built his own barges and a gasworks, and took over a brickworks.

In 1852 Newson built a mansion for his family – Alde House – and the maltings at Snape, turning barley into the malt needed for beer and shipping it to London and elsewhere.

You can see where his children got their momentum. Their father became Aldeburgh’s first mayor and county councillor. He also gave the town the Jubilee Hall – which, many years later, composer Benjamin Britten would use for his Aldeburgh Festival of Music and Arts.

Six years ago Jenifer Glynn wrote a book called The Pioneering Garretts: Breaking the Barriers for Women. She says of Newson: “His drive and intelligence, mixed with Louisa’s firm morality, had formidable results, firing his whole family with ambition.”

Elizabeth Garrett’s imagination was sparked by Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 was the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American college.

The sound of stable doors being bolted must have been almost audible to ambitious women on this side of the Atlantic.

The Medical Act of 1858 had ruled that qualifying as a doctor meant studying at universities and medical schools… and taking examinations were closed to women.

The Medical Council strengthened the rules after Dr Blackwell registered in England: qualifications from America and France were no longer to be recognised.

When Elizabeth told her father in 1860 that she wanted to study medicine, he blew his top – but, after reflecting, resolved to help his spirited daughter make her dream come true.

Luckily, many influential folk were sympathetic. For instance, William Hawes, a governor of Middlesex Hospital, suggested she join a surgical ward as a nurse and thus get medical experience.

Elizabeth spent about six months at the Middlesex. Because she was skilled and knowledgeable, she was also able to sit in on an outpatients’ clinic and operations.

Burning the candle at both ends, Elizabeth had private lessons with the apothecary – in Latin, Greek and other matters central to the study of medicine at that time. She also paid for a tutor to teach her physiology and anatomy during the evenings.

As time went on, she was allowed to sit in on chemistry lectures and dissections.

There’s a nice story about how she put male medical students’ noses out of joint as the only person able to answer a question during a ward-round.

Their pride dented, the students fired off a memo, complaining about young female spectators in the operating theatre being “an outrage on our natural instincts and feelings”, and “the promiscuous assemblage of the sexes in the same class (being) a dangerous innovation likely to lead to results of an unpleasant nature”.

Eventually it emerged that The Society of Apothecaries held a key to the back door. It was licensed to examine medical candidates. Yes, it had never before had a woman take its tests but, unlike the royal colleges, there was no law against it.

For about three years she studied privately, helped by supportive professors, and passed the exams. Afterwards, the society tweaked its rules to stop other women getting a licence to practise medicine…

“Elizabeth had been the only one to get through the net,” Jenifer Glynn wrote in her book. “In 1865 she was able to put up her brass plate, ‘Elizabeth Garrett L.S.A.’, (Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries) on a house in Upper Berkeley Street rented and furnished for her by Newson.”

The number of patients grew as she established herself, and after about six months she opened an outpatients’ dispensary so poor women could get help from a qualified female doctor. Its first year is said to have brought about 3,000 new patients.

In 1870 – after studying French – she got a medical degree from the University of Sorbonne in Paris.

A couple of years later the dispensary became the New Hospital for Women and Children, concentrating on gynaecology.

Elizabeth also jointly launched the London School of Medicine for Women – the nation’s only teaching hospital offering courses for women. Today, her name lives on with The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing – part of University College London Hospitals – which offers gynaecological, maternity and neonatal care.

After a long struggle, then, Elizabeth had set the ball rolling – and it couldn’t be stopped. In 1876 an Act allowed women to train and practise as doctors, alongside men.

And that, surely, makes Elizabeth Garrett Anderson not only the greatest East Anglian of them all and one of the most influential women in the quest for equal rights.

Who is going to rise to the challenge and give her the local statue she deserves?

Jenifer Glynn has no doubts about Elizabeth’s importance – for “refusing to be put off by endless difficulties” and supporting her sisters in their ambitions, “most famously Millicent Fawcett in her campaigns for higher education and for the vote”.

She tells ealife: “When the Post Office wanted to honour six influential women on their stamps in 2008, the first two were Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.”

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