June 9 – Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Posted on June 9, 2014

First off, let me tell you about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's “firsts”:
  • She was the first English woman to qualify as a physician in Britain.
  • She was the first English woman to qualify as a surgeon in Britain.
  • She helped found the first hospital staffed by women.
  • She was the first female dean of a British medical school.
  • She was the first female physician in France.
  • She was the first woman in Britain elected to a school board.
  • She was the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain.

A bit of an overachiever, don't you think?

How'd all that happen?

When I hear about someone having to struggle hard to be the first to do something – such as the first woman to become a doctor – I jump the conclusion that that person just cared sooo much about that particular goal that she didn't let anything stand in her way. I guess I assumed that Elizabeth Garrett just wanted to be a doctor really badly, because she loved medicine.

It turns out, that assumption was a bit off. Instead, Garrett and her friend cared more about living worthwhile lives, lives that would satisfy their active minds, and about promoting educational and professional opportunities for women, than she cared about medicine itself.

After learning at home from her mother and a governess, and then going to a sort of high-school-level boarding school, Garrett was looking for a way to make her life count for something. In 1959, she and her friend Emily Davies went to hear a lecture by Elizabeth Blackwell, who had become the first female doctor in the U.S. a decade before. Inspired by that lecture, Garrett and Davies hatched a plan of how to increase women's rights and opportunities: Garrett would put her efforts into opening up the medical profession to women, Davies would work on getting universities to allow women students, and Garret's little sister Millicent would work to get voting rights for women.
Garrett got to work on her goal with vigor. She won her dad over to her cause of becoming a physician (eventually), but Garrett met with no success in convincing the leading doctors in London that women could and should be allowed to train as doctors. So she worked as a surgery nurse in a hospital in London and proved herself to be a good nurse. She worked her way into tending patients at an outpatients' clinic. She was not allowed to enroll in the hospital's Medical School, but she was allowed to study privately with the hospital's apothecary (pharmacist) and she hired a tutor to study anatomy and physiology, while continuing to work as a nurse.

She persevered and kept asking to be allowed into the dissecting room and the chemistry lectures, and eventually she was allowed in. She had won over the support of the hospital university's administration – but the male students didn't want her and made a fuss.

She ended up having to leave the hospital. But she did have some honors certificates in chemistry, anatomy, and other medical science topics. She applied to many medical schools, but they all turned her down; finally she was admitted for private study by the Society of Apothecaries, and she continued to study with university professors privately.

In 1865, Garrett took her exam along with six others. Garrett earned the highest score of the seven; only she and two others passed and and obtained their license to practice medicine from the Society of Apothecaries.

Get this: although Garrett can thank the Society for becoming the first woman in Britain to obtain her medical license, the Society immediately changed its policies to prevent other women from doing so!!

You can see that Garrett had to have a lot of grit and determination. She had to work hard and score crazy-well, and still she found obstacles in her way. Once she had her license, hospitals still wouldn't hire her, so she set up a private practice. You could probably guess that many people didn't want to go to a female doctor, but she kept on and ended up eventually treating thousands of patients. She had to wait and wait before she was admitted into British Medical Association—and then she had to wait another 19 years for another woman to be admitted.

I imagine that all those other accomplishments – including becoming Britain's first woman school board member and the first woman mayor – were also born out of hard work, patience, and perseverance.

Garrett didn't spend every moment of her life surmounting obstacles and practicing medicine. She married a man named James Skelton Anderson, and she had three kids; she had a happy marriage and enjoyed gardening, traveling, and her family. Her daughter as well as her younger sister became feminist activists.

Hooray, hooray, hooray for Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, M.D.!

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