Vanishing memory of trailblazing doctor

The grave of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at Aldeburgh Church.

The grave of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at Aldeburgh Church. - Credit: Archant

She was a medical pioneer and social reformer who dared to take on the establishment and become the first British woman doctor.

But despite being honoured with institutions in her name - and even recommended as the new face of a banknote - Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s humble headstone is easily overlooked.

A century of wear means that only close examination of a faded inscription reveals her last resting place, at St Peter and St Paul churchyard in her hometown of Aldeburgh, where the epitaphs of other local luminaries read plain and proud.

Terry Hunt, EADT editor, said: “Elizabeth Garrett Anderson made a huge contribution to the creation of modern-day society. It is a great shame that her grave looks so neglected and, in a few years time, the wording will become illegible.

“With the centenary of her death only a few years away, now is the time to put this matter right.’’

Garrett Anderson paved the way for women physician in an exclusively male industry. She ignored the scorn of her stuffy superiors - and their refusal to let her sit the exams - by obtaining a medical degree in Paris.

Returning to her native county in 1871, she would go on to be elected mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908, a role now filled by Sara Fox. She said: “I’m very proud to have followed such an incredibly ground-breaker.

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“It will be the anniversary of her death in three years time and we will be proud to celebrate her life in the town.

“Being mayor of Aldeburgh was one of her great achievements. She was the first female mayor in England, the first female doctor, and very influential in the suffragette movement.

“Now it has been brought to our attention, we need to establish who is in charge of it.

“Although her headstone is surrounded by a metal railing, one of the problems is that it has been there for such a long time.

“It could definitely do with a tidy. Now it has been brought to our attention, we need to establish who is in charge of looking after it.”

Garrett Anderson’s father, and another former mayor, Newson Garrett, is also buried at the church, along with Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, and opera singers Peter Pears and Joan Cross.

Suffolk Coastal District Council has responsibility for the upkeep of the cemetery grounds, but is not in charge of maintaining the appearance of headstones.

The Revd Canon Nigel Hartley, vicar for Aldeburgh, said the local authority kept the churchyard in good order and that it was in an “exemplary” condition for the recent visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Of course, like everyone else, we would hope all graves in the churchyard - of which there are thousands - would be well looked after,” he said. “Because this is a grave of some significance we would wish to see it kept well. Together with churchwardens we have taken appropriate steps given the concerns in the letter to make sure that it is now neat and tidy.”

He admitted the headstone was difficult to read but he said it was legible. “Unfortunately it is impossible, without replacing the stone completely and therefore destroying its original nature, to prevent weathering. “Quite a lot of that depends on the quality of the stone used in the first place. A record has been made of what the writing is on the grave, which has been there since 1917.”

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was born in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, on June 9, 1836.

An ancestor of Suffolk’s famous Garrett engineering family, she became the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman on the UK Medical Register but received a medical degree in America.

Garrett Anderson also co-founded the first hospital staffed by women, was the first female member of the British Medical Association, and become England’s first female mayor.

A hospital and a school have been dedicated in her name, as well as the Garrett Anderson Centre emergency unit at Ipswich Hospital, which opened in 2008.

She died in 1917 but is still regarded as a medical pioneer. Her daughter, Louisa, would also become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and an important campaigner for women’s rights and social reform.

In the last week, Ed Miliband questioned the decision to replace Elizabeth Fry’s image with that of Winston Churchill on the back of the £5 note.

The Labour leader told a Women in Advertising and Communications London conference that it would mean everyone on our banknotes will be a man apart from The Queen.

He said: “Why don’t we have one of our great women scientists, like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and a suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst on our banknotes?”

The Revd Canon Nigel Hartley, vicar for Aldeburgh, said he would fully support the move to have “someone as prestigious as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson” on the bank note.