7 of Suffolk's most inspirational women

Portrait of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. - Credit: PA

Ahead of International Women's Day on Monday March 8, get to know some of the figures who have made an incredible impact on our great county and the wider world.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson  

Very few of us will be able to achieve a ‘first’ in any given field – unlike Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was not only the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor, but was also the first woman to be elected as a mayor in England. In addition to this, she was also the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board, and the first dean of a British medical school. 

Born in 1836, Elizabeth found herself repeatedly rejected after applying to a number of medical schools – so went on to found her own after obtaining a medical degree in France. Alongside fellow contemporaries Elizabeth Blackwell and Sophia Jex-Blake, the trio established London School of Medicine for Women – the first medical school in Britain to train women as doctors. 

Closer to home, readers will recognise Elizabeth as former Mayor of Aldeburgh, after she was elected in 1908 – making her the first female mayor in England. She was also a prominent member of the Suffragette Movement, with her daughter Louisa following in her footsteps.  

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Pic Simon Parker
Mary Skelcher of The National Trust at Sutton Hoo with the portrait o

Mary Skelcher of The National Trust at Sutton Hoo with a portrait of Edith Pretty - Credit: Simon Parker


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Edith Pretty 

While Edith May Pretty was actually born in Yorkshire in 1883, she played an incredibly pivotal part in Suffolk history thanks to her helping hand at Sutton Hoo. It was her land that the Anglo-Saxon treasures and ghost ship were excavated from back in 1939. After allowing an archaeological dig to take place on her estate, Basil Brown and his team of diggers got to work and eventually unearthed what would go on to be dubbed “one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time”.  

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Following a treasure trove inquest later that summer, it was found that the goods from the ship were legally Edith’s property – and she decided to donate the finds to the British Museum so they could be viewed and enjoyed by all.  

Had it not been for Edith allowing archaeologists on her land, we may never have uncovered what was beneath those fateful mounds – meaning a huge gap in British history may have been left buried for another thousand years. 

Professor Dorothy Hodgkin, 60, Nobel Prize winner for her work in chemistry, pictured at the Univers

Professor Dorothy Hodgkin at 60, pictured at the University of Bristol where she was installed New Chancellor of the University of Bristol - Credit: PA

Dorothy Hodgkin 

This former Suffolk schoolgirl managed to not only break barriers at such a young age, but also went on to make one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century. 

Dorothy Hodgkin, who attended Sir John Leman Grammar School in Beccles, was one of only two girls who was allowed to study chemistry at the school back in 1921. It’s a good job she fought for her right to learn, as she later advanced the technique of X-Ray crystallography to determine the structure of biomolecules - a method that has since became an essential tool in the field of structural biology.  

It is this work that has allowed us to see the molecules of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. By mapping these structures, the scientific world was then able to speed up the process of manufacturing penicillin, as well as create better treatment for diabetes through learning more about insulin – essentially saving and bettering the lives of millions around the world. 

In 1964, Dorothy also became the third women to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry – following in the footsteps of Marie Curie (née Sklodowska) and Irène Joliot-Curie.  

Stella Cobbold, c.1903 Picture: Cobbold Family History Trust archives

Stella Cobbold, c.1903 - Credit: Cobbold Family History Trust archives/Archant Archives

Stella Cobbold, Charlotte Ridley and Mabel Pretty 

Affectionately dubbed ‘The Ladies of Ipswich’, this philanthropic trio banded together during the Great War to form a hospital supplies depot in what is now the town’s library – going on to save thousands of lives and support soldiers on the frontline. 

Their efforts were uncovered a few years ago by local historical researcher Julia Barrett – who stumbled across the women while she was working on a living history event at Kentwell Hall to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. 

The three were founding members of the Suffolk Branch British Red Cross, and by utilising their philanthropic connections, they managed to set up what would later become a countrywide network of hospital supply depots thanks to their access of textiles, pharmaceuticals, storage facilities and transport networks. 

Three days after the outbreak of war, they organised a shipment of goods to soldiers in France. Much-needed items that the women managed to source included shirts, pneumonia jackets, towels, sheets, flannels, handkerchiefs, assorted bandages, dressings and cloths. 

“Within months, they had satellite depots in every Suffolk town possessing a railway station and many more sub-depots in the surrounding villages. The Framlingham depot alone supplied more than 46,000 items to the hospitals over the duration of the war. These depots supplied every single item of equipment needed by the Red Cross hospitals as well as shipping supplies to frontlines all over the world,” explained Julia. 

Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell - Credit: Tudor Morgan-Owen

Ruth Rendell 

One of Britain’s best-loved authors, Ruth Rendell helped put Suffolk on the map thanks to her series of novels that would regularly feature the county throughout.  

Whether it was Sudbury in Gallowglass, Bury St Edmunds in The Brimstone, Polstead and Nayland in A Fatal Inversion, or Orford and Aldeburgh in No Night Is Too Long, Ruth loved Suffolk and loved nothing more than immortalising it in print. 

With more than 60 books to her name, and millions of copies sold, she was undoubtedly best known for her Inspector Wexford detective series, which was later adapted into a television series which spanned across four seasons.  

In addition to her literary achievements, Ruth was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1996, and a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh, of Aldeburgh a year later. A staunch Labour Party supporter, she introduced a bill into the House of Lords that would eventually become the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 – another huge milestone for women’s rights in the UK. 

Is there a woman who had an impact on Suffolk but didn’t make the list? Email danielle.lett@archant.co.uk to share your inspirational women.   

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