Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: a modern woman 100 years ahead of her time

As a junior doctor possessing two X chromosomes, it is easy to applaud the achievements of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917), widely revered as the first British female doctor. It is infinitely harder to establish exactly how she succeeded and to quantify the relevance of this extraordinary woman who died just over 100 years ago. Can we still learn from her example, or has too much time passed to draw significant parallels in today’s modern world?

 

Image 1: Elizabeth Garrett as a young woman, Wellcome Images

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson wrote to a friend in 1864: ‘My strength lies in the extra amount of daring which I have as a family endowment. All Garretts have it.’ EGA did have ‘daring’, and she wasn’t scared to do things differently. She is frequently referred to as ‘a pioneer’, and with just cause: EGA was the first woman to qualify in Britain to practice medicine, the first woman to qualify as a doctor of medicine in France, the founder of the first hospital staffed by women, the first female member of the British Medical Association (BMA), the first female Dean of a British medical school, the first female mayor in Britain; the list goes on. EGA’s nature as ‘the first’ engendered two conditions: one, that the medical profession as a whole had not expected, nor prepared, for the possibility of a female attempting admission to their ranks; and two, that any doors that remained open within the medical profession were swiftly slammed shut soon after EGA had passed through them. The permission for women to take the Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA) examinations to obtain a medical degree, and admission of females to the BMA may be cited as examples here. Consequently, EGA’s nature as a ‘pioneer’ conferred a significant advantage, and it was initially harder, as opposed to easier, for women to qualify as doctors after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had succeeded.

 

Image 2: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Wellcome Images

Not only did EGA have an unwavering belief in herself and her ability to become a doctor but she put her career first: this was unprecedented in mid-Victorian Britain. She married comparatively late, at the age of 34, despite the average age of contemporary females entering matrimony being just 23 years in 1871. Importantly, marriage took place only after she had successfully completed her studies to become a fully qualified doctor. She had previously declined an offer of marriage in 1865 from her sister Millicent’s future husband, the MP Henry Fawcett. Even after becoming engaged to James Skelton Anderson, she worried that this might jeopardise her career as a doctor and her fight for women’s suffrage: ‘I believe I should almost die of the sense of something akin to guilt, if I found myself, three years hence, really out of the medical field’. This excerpt clearly demonstrates an immense sense of duty. EGA felt herself carrying the weight of the future of women’s rights on her shoulders, and this was constantly in the forefront of her mind.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson changed the course of women in medicine indefinitely, and more broadly, had an integral role in promoting the women’s suffrage movement on a national scale. Women today can identify with EGA given that she mastered the ability of the ‘modern woman’ to ‘have it all’ – with both a successful career and a fulfilling family life. In 1871, The Lancet proposed ‘if [Elizabeth Garrett Anderson] succeeds in combining the two functions of mistress of a household and medical practitioner, she will have performed a feat unprecedented in professional history, and added another notable incident to this annus mirabilis’.

 

Quod erat demonstrandum.

 

Further reading:

  • Glynn, J. (2008). ‘The Pioneering Garretts – Breaking barriers for women’, Hambledon Continuum, London.
  • Garrett Anderson, L. (2016). ‘Elizabeth Garrett Anderson 1836-1917’, Cambridge University Press.

 

Lucy Havard

Posted in medical history.

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