Championing the cause of women

THE “glass ceiling” metaphor would have meant nothing to 19th Century Woman, but she doubtless sensed an invisible force keeping her in her place. Change was coming, it's true, although it would be a frustratingly gradual process.

Younger readers might believe girl power was invented by the Spice Girls. But, says STEVEN RUSSELL, look back a century or so and you'll find a determined Suffolk lady successfully fighting against convention to raise the status of women

THE “glass ceiling” metaphor would have meant nothing to 19th Century Woman, but she doubtless sensed an invisible force keeping her in her place. Change was coming, it's true, although it would be a frustratingly gradual process.

One of those who would challenge the status quo was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson - born on this day in 1836. She would go on to be Britain's first female doctor and England's first woman mayor - when she became Aldeburgh's First Lady in 1908.

Very soon her name will be immortalised by a new building taking shape on the Ipswich Hospital site. When it opens in late 2007, the multi-million-pound Garrett Anderson Centre will offer a new emergency department, a critical care centre, a day surgery suite, and theatres and beds dedicated to planned - or elective - care.

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The name of the complex, says the NHS trust, “reflects the immense contribution to healthcare by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson”.

Elizabeth, one of a dozen children in the family, was born in Whitechapel. Her father, Newson Garrett, was the grandson of the founder of the Garrett agricultural machinery works at Leiston, but was himself running a pawnbroker's business in the capital. Her mother, born Louisa Dunnell, was part of a long-established Dunwich family.

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Eight or nine years later, Newson Garrett had become a successful merchant rich enough to buy his children - Elizabeth was the second of six daughters - a decent boarding school education.

In 1840 he had moved his family to Uplands in the town - opposite the parish church and nowadays a hotel - and the following year bought the business of Snape Bridge corn and coal merchants Osborne and Fennell, thanks to a small inheritance from his father and help from his in-laws.

Newson Garrett later built Alde House as a home for his family. In the mid 1850s he started malting at Snape and rapidly became a leading local businessman.

Margaret Young, who lives near Ipswich and who is a great-great-grandchild of Newson Garrett's brother, says: “It is said that he drew the plans for the maltings at Snape in the sand with his walking stick, which accounts for the curved shape still to be seen today.”

The bright and energetic Elizabeth was taught at home by a governess and then, as a teenager, spent two years at an “Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen” in Blackheath, run by a Miss Browning and her sister.

Margaret Young points out that the important influences on her life were the friends she made there rather than the education, which was sadly lacking - her brothers had proper public school educations at Rugby and the City of London School, as well as tutors at home.

Afterwards, Elizabeth decided that the traditional plan for an educated young lady - staying at home and waiting for a fitting suitor to appear - was not the way she wanted to do things. She was drawn to the idea of working, and her thoughts were fanned by an early feminist called Emily Davies - later to found Girton in Cambridge in 1869 as the first residential college for women - who introduced her to other London campaigners.

Before the decade was out came another meeting - one that would change her life. Elizabeth met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American female physician, who was treating women and children in the poorer neighbourhoods of New York. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was inspired, and set her heart on becoming a doctor herself.

Unfortunately, it simply wasn't something young ladies did in those days. Her parents were unhappy at first with her stubborn determination to press on, but in the summer of 1860 Newson Garrett agreed to back her bid to become the nation's first female doctor.

He asked a friend, William Hawes, for help. Hawes suggested diving into the deep end, with six months on a surgical ward at Middlesex Hospital. With hygiene at best haphazard and at worst non-existent, Elizabeth would soon discover if she could stomach a doctor's environment.

With medicine being a male preserve, she was obliged to become a nurse - enrolling at the Middlesex Hospital that June and then having to win permission to attend lectures and take part in dissection.

By all accounts this unofficial student did well - though life was not without its pressures. Many people urged her to give up her dream. In August, 1860, for instance, she told Emily Davies of a letter from her mother: “She speaks of my step being a source of life-long pain to her, that it is a living death, etc. By the same post I had several letters from anxious relatives, telling me that it was my duty to come home and thus ease my mother's anxiety.”

According to a book written later by her daughter, Elizabeth did so well in class exams at the Middlesex that the examiner begged her to keep her success a secret from other students. And once, when no-one but Elizabeth was able to answer a question posed by a visiting expert, angry males demanded she be thrown out!

She was barred from further lectures in the summer of 1861.

Male doctors at Middlesex Hospital would later claim in a statement that “The presence of a young female in the operating theatre is an outrage to our natural instincts and is calculated to destroy the respect and admiration with which the opposite sex is regarded.”

Things didn't get a lot better when the determined young lady applied to Aberdeen Hospital for medical training, only to be rebuffed. The reply told her it was not necessary for fair ladies to “be brought into contact with such foul scenes . . . Ladies would make bad doctors at the best, and they do so many things excellently that I for one should be sorry to see them trying to do this one”.

Not to be deterred, she discovered that women were not barred from the Society of Apothecaries exam. Elizabeth qualified as a licentiate in 1865. It was the bottom rung of the medical ladder, but treating women and children - she set up her own practice in Upper Berkeley Street that autumn - meant she had achieved many of her goals. The following year, following an outbreak of cholera, she opened St Mary's Dispensary for Women and Children nearby.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Society of Apothecaries shut the stable door after the horse had bolted and changed the rules to prevent other women taking the same route.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, still had her eye on gaining a “proper” medical degree and in 1870 passed the crucial five examinations in Paris - in French! - although the British authorities later refused to recognise the qualification.

However, she had by now established a momentum that would not be denied.

In 1870 she became a visiting physician at the East London hospital for children. On the personal side, a year later she married James Skelton Anderson, financial adviser to the hospital and a successful ship owner (the family company would later become P&O). They would have three children: Louisa, Margaret (who would die of meningitis at the age of 15 months) and Alan.

In 1872 she opened the New Hospital for Women in London, staffed only by women. In a neat closing of the circle, Elizabeth Blackwell - who had inspired the interest in medicine - became professor of gynaecology.

There's still a building bearing Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's name in WC1, housing gynaecology, obstetric and neonatal services for University College London Hospitals NHS Trust. The trust says: “The hospital which took her name soon became synonymous with women-centred services, including the right of a woman to be treated by a female doctor, a principle which survives to the present day.”

Elizabeth became the first female dean of a medical school when she was elected to the position at the London School of Medicine. She had the honour of being the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, in 1874, and in 1896 would become president of its East Anglian branch.

Her determination had indeed cracked that glass ceiling, and in 1876 an Act was passed to allow women into the medical professions.

Not long after the turn of the century Elizabeth opted to return permanently to her childhood roots in Aldeburgh, where the family had always spent its holidays.

However, retirement did little to diminish her spirit and political drive. She entered into the life of the town. Skelton Anderson became mayor after Elizabeth's father, and in November 1908 - by now into her 70s and widowed the previous year - she was herself elected mayor of Aldeburgh. It was yet another historic moment in the history of women - marking the arrival of the first female mayor in England.

“Elizabeth was a very determined lady and the stories that have been handed down in the family about her show that she had quite a sharp tongue,” says Margaret Young.

“When a grateful patient said 'You must have a great love for the sick,' she answered 'On the contrary, I became a doctor because I detest sickness.'”

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died the week before Christmas, 1917, at the age of 81, and was buried at Aldeburgh. However, the building of the new Ipswich Hospital complex that bears her name will ensure her legacy lives on.

IN the summer of 1860, Elizabeth Garrett wrote to friend Emily Davies about her father's reaction, when she told him she wanted to become a doctor:

“At first he was very discouraging, to my astonishment then, but now I fancy he did it as a forlorn hope to check me; he said the whole idea was so disgusting that he could not entertain it for a moment. I asked what there was to make doctoring more disgusting than nursing, which women were always doing, and which ladies had done publicly in the Crimea. He could not tell me.

“When I felt rather overcome with his opposition, I said as firmly as I could that I must have this or something else, that I could not live without some real work, and then he objected that it would take seven years before I could practise.

“I said if it were seven years I should then be little more than 31 years old and able to work for twenty years probably. I think he will probably come round in time, I mean to renew the subject pretty often.”

Margaret Young, whose great-grandfather was Elizabeth's cousin, explains that the reactionary nature of the medical establishment “was what won her father round, because he could not bear anyone to stand in his way or that of a member of his family. He gave in and promised to support her and pay for her studies during her training”.

A STRONG feminist vein runs through Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's life, though it is not right to call her a suffragette - more a suffragist.

In 1865 she, Emily Davies and other friends formed a women's discussion group - the Kensington Society. It raised a petition urging Parliament to give women the vote.

Although MPs turned down the plea, the campaigners did win backing from Liberals like Henry Fawcett. Elizabeth would later reject his marriage proposal, apparently believing it would adversely affect her career, and the Brighton MP - who had been blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25 - went on to marry her sister, Millicent.

At the age of 72, Elizabeth joined the Women's Social and Political Union, which had a reputation for militancy. In 1908 she was fortunate to avoid being arrested after members of the union stormed the House of Commons.

Elizabeth left in 1911 - she objected to the group's use of arson as a tactic - though her daughter, Louisa, stayed a member and in 1912 was jailed for militancy.


YOU can learn more about the history of the Garrett family at The Aldeburgh Museum, in the town's Moot Hall (, and at The Long Shop Museum in Leiston (

More about the life of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson can be found at:

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