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Anderson, Elizabeth Garrettfree

  • M. A. Elston

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917)

by Walery, c. 1889

Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett (1836–1917), physician, was born on 9 June 1836 at 1 Commercial Road, Whitechapel, London, the second of the nine children of Newson Garrett (1812–1893), grain merchant and maltster of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and his wife, Louisa (1813–1903), daughter of John Dunnell; her father's elder brother, Richard Garrett (1807–1866), was a leading agricultural engineer [see under Garrett]. She was brought up mainly in Aldeburgh, being educated by a governess at home, from 1846, and then, from 1849 to about 1854, at the boarding-school for ladies at Blackheath, Kent, which was run by the aunts of the poet Robert Browning. During the mid-1850s she became friends with Emily Davies, who later founded Girton College, Cambridge, for women. With Davies she became an active member of the Langham Place circle [see Langham Place group], a group of middle-class women associated with the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, and with the Englishwoman's Journal; she was hence at the core of the emerging mid-Victorian women's movement. Through these activities Garrett met Dr Elizabeth Blackwell in 1859. Blackwell was an Englishwoman brought up in the United States where she had, after much difficulty, obtained a medical degree. Blackwell was the only woman able to have her name entered on the newly established General Medical Council's register (under temporary provisions for overseas qualified doctors immediately after the passage of the 1858 Medical Act). She was visiting London to do this and to promote the cause of medical women, a cause which Garrett was inspired to take up.

Supported by Blackwell and, once she had overcome his initial disapproval, by her determined and wealthy father, Garrett set about obtaining a medical education and a registrable medical qualification, but she faced many difficulties. She applied to enrol formally as a medical student at several London teaching hospitals and to matriculate at the universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews, and London. All these attempts were unsuccessful except for a brief period in 1860–61 at the Middlesex Hospital in London, where pressure from some of the male students, possibly jealous of her academic prowess, led to her being excluded from further study there. However, under threat of legal action, the Society of Apothecaries conceded that they could not refuse her access to their examinations if she completed the requisite courses of study as a private student of teachers from recognized medical schools and served her apprenticeship under a licensed apothecary. In 1865 she obtained the licence of the Society of Apothecaries which entitled her to have her name entered on the medical register, the first woman qualified in Britain to do so. She remained as such on the medical register until 1876.

In 1870 Garrett supplemented her relatively low-status qualification with an MD from the University of Paris, the first woman to obtain this degree. In 1873 she was admitted to membership of the British Medical Association. Resisting pressures to resign when the association voted against the admission of further women in 1878, she remained the only woman member for nineteen years. This was one of several instances where Garrett, uniquely, was able to enter a hitherto all male medical institution which subsequently moved formally to exclude any women who might seek to follow her.

After qualifying Garrett set up in practice in Upper Berkeley Street, London, not far from the fashionable medical district around Harley Street. In 1866, supported by some prominent philanthropists as patrons, she established the St Mary's Dispensary for Women and Children, in the Marylebone district of London, and a provident fund for poor women seeking her services. In 1870 she obtained an honorary appointment at East London Hospital for Children. In November 1870, in the first election to the London school board in which women were eligible to stand, she stood as a candidate for the Marylebone district. She obtained the vigorous support of Robert Browning and her dispensary patients' husbands, and recorded the highest number of votes of all candidates across London. The chairman of her election campaign was James George Skelton Anderson (1838/9–1907), of the Orient Steamship Line and son of Alexander Anderson, clergyman, whom she married on 9 February 1871. They had one son, Alan Garrett Anderson, and two daughters, Margaret, who died of meningitis in 1875, and Louisa Garrett Anderson, who went on to become a distinguished doctor herself.

Marriage and motherhood did not apparently impede the development of Garrett Anderson's successful medical career, although she did not seek re-election to the school board and resigned her appointment at the East London Hospital. In 1871 Garrett Anderson opened ten beds above the dispensary as the New Hospital for Women. This was to be the first hospital in Britain with only medical women appointed to its staff. Initially, and perforce, Garrett Anderson appointed unregistered women with overseas medical degrees as house officers. The New Hospital moved to a larger site in the Marylebone Road in 1874, and, in 1890, to a purpose-built building with forty-two beds in Euston Road. Renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918, this hospital continued to have only female medical staff until its absorption into a larger hospital in the 1980s.

Through her work at the New Hospital for Women Garrett Anderson had opportunities to undertake major surgery, sometimes controversially. In 1872 her decision to undertake the then high risk procedure of ovariotomy herself for the first time led to the resignation of her house officer, Frances Hoggan, and the refusal by the hospital's management committee to have the operation performed on the premises. (The operation eventually took place in rented premises and the patient survived.) Alongside her work with poorer women, Garrett Anderson had, by 1880, built up a successful private practice, comparable to that of her leading male peers. She believed that prevention was better than cure, and her bedside manner was reported as being like her natural manner in private, 'dry, witty and often brusque. Her will was indomitable and she never suffered fools gladly' (Manton, 261).

This successful medical practice was, at least formally, limited to the care of women and children. In doing this, Garrett Anderson was reflecting the important part that calls for preserving women's modesty and delicacy played in the Victorian campaign for women to enter the medical profession. She set a precedent that was to be followed by almost all British medical women until the First World War. However, one male patient whom Garrett Anderson did attend, at least in emergencies and on his deathbed, was her brother-in-law, the economist and politician Henry Fawcett (1833–1884). He had once unsuccessfully proposed to her and subsequently married her younger sister, Millicent (1847–1929) [see Fawcett], who became a leader of the constitutional campaign for women's suffrage.

Garrett Anderson's success in professional practice and the example she set in combining marriage and motherhood in themselves would probably have made her a role model for those women who wished to follow her into medicine. But from her first qualification she was conscious of her responsibilities towards those women who sought to follow her into medicine. Initially this took the form of taking several young women as apprentices, including Edith Pechey (later Pechey Phipson), and Frances Morgan (later Hoggan). They planned to follow Garrett Anderson's example by obtaining the licence of the Society of Apothecaries, through private study if necessary. But in 1868 the society closed its examinations to all but students enrolled at recognized medical schools, thereby apparently excluding women from any access to the medical register.

For the next few years the campaign for women's entry to the medical profession was fought on several distinct fronts. One was in Edinburgh, where in 1869 the ‘Edinburgh Seven’, a small band of women led by Sophia Jex-Blake, and including Pechey, were permitted to matriculate as medical students in the university. But as opposition to the women's being permitted to graduate grew within the university, the sharp confrontations between Jex-Blake and some of her opponents turned the issue of medical women into a major public controversy by 1873. Meanwhile, several British women, including Morgan, had taken medical degrees at the universities of Zürich and Bern, which had been recently opened to women. Their strategy was to persuade by individual example. By demonstrating that women could practise successfully as medical practitioners (despite being unregistered), they hoped to obtain public and professional approval and, eventually, General Medical Council recognition for their overseas degrees, a move which would have required parliamentary legislation. It was this quiet, non-confrontational, back-door route that Garrett Anderson initially favoured. Following the final defeat of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ in the Scottish court of appeal in 1873, she wrote to The Times (5 August 1873) declaring that the time was not yet ripe for women's medical education in Britain. At the time she opposed Jex-Blake's proposal to establish a separate women's medical school on the grounds that such a school was likely to be, or to be regarded as, inferior to men's schools. Although no less determined in character than Jex-Blake, Garrett Anderson had learned to adopt a more discreet manner in her negotiations with the medical profession. This incident was one of several clashes of personality and preferred tactics between Garrett Anderson and Jex-Blake.

Nevertheless, when the London School of Medicine for Women opened in 1874, largely as a result of Jex-Blake's efforts, Garrett Anderson gave it her support. She joined the school's permanent council and the teaching staff. She also offered the students clinical experience at the New Hospital for Women. Although insufficient to meet the General Medical Council's requirements for the school's recognition, this provided invaluable opportunities for students. After qualification the house posts and other positions at the New Hospital were much sought after by young medical women, who faced many obstacles in obtaining posts in other hospitals.

For the rest of her professional life, Garrett Anderson's activities revolved mainly around the London School of Medicine for Women and the New Hospital. She forged the close relationship between these two institutions which were central to the small network of English medical women in the nineteenth century. In 1883, despite the opposition of Jex-Blake, she was appointed dean of the school, a post she held until 1902. As dean she oversaw the considerable expansion of the school, its legal incorporation, its renaming as the London (Royal Free Hospital) School of Medicine for Women (a formal recognition of the links with its associated teaching hospital) and its becoming a college of the University of London. She continued as senior physician at the New Hospital for Women until 1892, when, having successfully overseen its rebuilding on a new site, she resigned from the honorary staff but remained a consultant.

To her students Garrett Anderson offered, through precept and personal example, a model of female professionalism in which 'the first thing women must learn is to dress like ladies and behave like gentlemen' (quoted in Manton, 311). She wrote a short medical textbook, The Student's Pocket Index, in 1878, and contributed notes on several cases for the British Medical Journal, two articles to a 15-volume Encyclopaedia medica (1899–1910), and many letters and short articles for newspapers on medical matters and the women's cause.

In 1902 Garrett Anderson and her husband retired to Aldeburgh, where she was elected the first woman mayor in England in 1908 (until 1910), a position previously held by her husband who had died in March 1907. This enabled her to pursue her interest in housing and sanitation. Between 1908 and 1911, to the consternation of some Aldeburgh town councillors, she actively supported the Women's Social and Political Union led by Mrs Pankhurst. But by 1912 she had publicly renounced militant tactics in favour of the suffragist approach favoured by her sister Millicent Fawcett. Garrett Anderson died at Alde House, Aldeburgh, on 17 December 1917 after a long illness and was buried in the parish churchyard there.

Garrett Anderson's contribution to medicine was not primarily as a clinician or contributor to new medical knowledge. An outstanding administrator, she was, above all, sponsor and mentor to the vast majority of British women who qualified in medicine in Britain in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.


  • J. Manton, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1965)
  • L. G. Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1939)
  • E. M. Bell, Storming the citadel: the rise of the woman doctor (1953)
  • M. A. Elston, ‘Women doctors in the British health service: a sociological study of their careers and opportunities’, PhD diss., U. Leeds, 1986
  • The Times (18 Dec 1917)
  • M. G. Fawcett, What I remember (1924)
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • LMA, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital
  • Royal Free Hospital, London, medical school
  • Women's Library, London, letters to Emily Davies and others


  • Elliott & Fry, carte-de-visite, 1870, NPG
  • Walery, photograph, 1889, NPG [see illus.]
  • O. Edis, photograph, 1910, NPG
  • O. Edis, photograph, NPG
  • F. Hollyer, photograph, V&A
  • J. S. Sargent, oils, priv. coll.; copies, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, London, and Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, London
  • Swaine, photograph, Wellcome L.
  • oils, Wellcome L.
  • oils, British Medical Association, London
  • photograph, Wellcome L.
  • portraits, repro. in Manton, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
  • wood-engraving, Wellcome L.

Wealth at Death

£24,098 3s. 0d.: probate, 20 March 1918, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]