Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: How we reported the death of a woman who broke the glass ceiling
PUBLISHED: 12:05 17 December 2017 | UPDATED: 14:00 17 December 2017
It’s the 100th anniversary of the death of Suffolk’s most famous daughter. First woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. First woman to be elected an English mayor
The Evening Star was quick to record the loss of someone who, if she were around today, we’d not hesitate to call a legend. The Facebook and Twitter of its age (pretty much) it carried the news on the day she died in Suffolk: Monday, December 17, 1917.
It’s true that to modern eyes it appears tucked away: on page three. No fancy layouts or photographs a century ago, either. Seven columns to a page, and the news simply ran up and down, up and down, most of the time.
Mind you, readers scoured the smaller-than-now print to glean every scrap of information – especially as Britain was in the fourth year of The Great War.
There, in the bottom half of the page, was the headline “Mrs Garrett Anderson”. A sub-head told us: First English Lady Mayor. (No mention yet of her greatest achievement.)
To the left, details of the food situation in Germany (a warning that profiteering could trigger rioting, apparently) and to the right three paragraphs about two men from the same Scottish hamlet. Both joined up and fought in France. Both were shot in the foot – the bullet, in each case, entering through the left ankle and passing into the right foot. Each soldiers had his right foot amputated.
Both returned to Britain in the same coach of an ambulance train, and were now next to each other in the ward of a Bath hospital.
News of Elizabeth’s death had perhaps come close to deadline, but the journalist got all the key points (although we’re not told her first name!).
“The death is announced of Mrs Garrett Anderson, of Aldeburgh, which took place this morning,” read the report. “Mrs Anderson was one of the pioneers of lady students of medicine, which she began to study so long ago as 1860.
“She had opportunities for study at the Middlesex and London Hospitals, and also at St Andrew’s University. The Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians refused to admit her to their examinations, but (she) was admitted to the examination of the Society of Apothecaries, and obtained its licence to practice [sic] in 1865.
“Finally in 1870 she passed the medical examination of the University of Paris, and received the M.D. degree in 1870. From 1866 to 1890 she was senior physician to the New Hospital for Women.
“Mrs Garrett Anderson was Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women for twenty years, and a lecturer at the same school for eighteen years.
“Some 20 years ago she was elected President of the East Anglian Branch of the British Medical Association. Many papers were contributed by her to medical journals.
“For many years she practised in London, where she also took a foremost part in educational work, having been a member of the first London School Board.
“In 1908 she became Mayor of Aldeburgh, thus being the first Lady Mayor in England. Mrs Garrett Anderson was the widow of Mr J Anderson, of the Orient Line.”
‘One of the fighting pioneers of the uphill struggle’
The following day, we really went to town. Elizabeth’s accomplishments were discussed as the second item in the Star’s opinion column. (And we gave her a hyphen.)
“The death of Mrs Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson, M.D., of Alde House, Aldeburgh, removes a notable personality who will always bear an honoured name in the history of the medical profession.
“With Miss Elizabeth Blackwell and Miss Jex Blake she was one of the fighting pioneers in this country of the uphill struggle to open the medical profession to women.
“When no medical school in this country would admit women she qualified by taking the Paris M.D., and with others opened her modest ‘New Hospital for Women’ in Euston Road, London.
“Public opinion was on the side of the ladies, and in 1876 an enabling Bill permitted British examining bodies to extend their examinations to women as well as men.
“The incurable conservatism which has always been shown by the general body of the medical profession to new ideas stood in the way of advance, and till 1892 Dr Garrett-Anderson was the only female member of the British Medical Association.
“In that year, at Nottingham, the offending rule was repealed, and a great field was open to women, enabling some of them, as in the case of Dr Elsie Inglis, of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, to perform most valuable work for ourselves and our allies in the present war.
“In another column full reference is made to Mrs Garrett-Anderson’s career, which was not narrowly professional, but was notable also for interest in education (she was a member of the first London School Board), sanitation, the welfare of the troops, the municipal questions (she was the first lady mayor in England, having been Mayor of Aldeburgh in 1908).
“The name of Garrett-Anderson bids fair to gain still further honour in the medical world, as her daughter is the head of the Military Hospital in Endell Street, London.”
‘A most monstrous and unwomanly thing’ – the practise of medicine by a female
On the opposite page was a long piece paying tribute to this “Pioneer Lady Doctor and First Lady Mayor”. Here’s much of it:
A Suffolk lady of undeniable fame, the pioneer in the practise [sic] of medicine by women and the first of the sex to fill the Mayoral chair, Mrs Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson passed away in the early hours of Monday morning at her residence, Alde House, Aldeburgh-on-Sea. She had been in failing health for some time past, strength gradually declining from the early days of summer. The deceased lady had reached the venerable age of four score.
In 1858 there came to England a lady who, 11 years earlier, by the vote of men students, had gained admittance to the medical school of the University of Geneva, in the state of New York. This courageous lady, Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, had run the gauntlet of contempt and prejudice in quite abnormal degree: even women – those of the domestic type – looked upon her as a freak, “either bad or mad,” and her period of study proved a trial of endurance.
But she reached her goal, and practised in New York for a considerable period, establishing a dispensary, which expanded into an infirmary for women.
When Dr Elizabeth Blackwell visited England in 1858 her name was placed on the English register, just prior to the enforcement of the Act which prevented doctors with only foreign degrees being enrolled.
Dr Blackwell lectured in London on “medicine as a profession for women,” and Miss Elizabeth Garrett became an enthusiastic convert to her views.
In 1860 Miss Garrett set about the study of medicine, while her sisters (Mrs Fawcett and the late Mrs Rhona Garrett) worked zealously in the political and educational phases of “the women’s” movement.
Verily the pathway was rough, and the obstacles encountered sufficient to deter all but those possessed of what would today, in the language beloved of monarchs and statesman, be called “the will to conquer.”
Miss Garrett, both in her course of study and in attaining the necessary degrees for practice, gave to outsiders the impression that she fully realised she was standing forth as the challenger of the medical profession on the momentous question as to whether the female gender could claim intellectual equality with the male.
The male gender, showing little desire to put a challenge to the test, adopted thwarting tactics.
The young lady aspirant managed to obtain more or less regular instruction at the Middlesex Hospital, in London, but was refused admission as a full student both there and many other schools to which she applied.
Finally she started studying anatomy privately at the London Hospital, and with some of the professors at Saint Andrews University, and at the Edinburgh Extramural School.
She had no less difficulty in gaining a qualifying diploma to practise medicine. London University, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, and many other examining bodies refused to admit her to their examinations; the attitude of these organisations was embodied in a phrase which may be found in the pages of history – “a most monstrous and unwomanly thing“ was the practice of medicine by a woman.
In the end the Society of Apothecaries (London) allowed her to enter for the licence of apothecaries, which she obtained in 1865.
(In 1866 she was appointed to Saint Mary’s Dispensary, a London institution where poor women could get medical help from women.)
This measure of success probably intensified her desire for full realisation of her purpose; “The will to conquer” was highly developed, and Mrs Garrett showed no disposition to mildly accept the results of the thwarting tactics brought into play against her.
From that date (1870) this pioneer of the lady doctors enjoyed a career of uninterrupted success: the demonstration of intellectual ability, coupled with the spirit of redoubtable determination, tended to moderate the contempt and derision hitherto encountered; but years elapsed before the leader in the practice of medicine by women was accorded the full measure of confidence which she might reasonably have claimed as her due.
Marriage did not abate her ardour in the medical movement among women… She worked steadily at the development of the dispensary into the New Hospital and (from 1874) at the creation of a complete school of medicine in London for women.
Both institutions have since been handsomely and suitably housed and equipped, the New Hospital, in the Euston Road – the memorial stone of which was laid by Queen Alexandra, when Princess of Wales – being entirely worked by medical women, and the school (in Hunter Street), having normally over 200 students. Most of them are preparing for the medical degree of London University, which was opened to women in 1877.
Mrs Garrett Anderson’s work at the school of medicine for women extended over a quarter of a century – she was Dean from 1883 to 1903, and lectured on medicine from 1876 to 1898.
The movement for the admission of women to the medical profession, of which she was the indefatigable pioneer in England, has extended to almost every civilised country: even Turkey, it was recently announced, has come into line.
The death of her husband in 1907 was a heavy blow: Mr Anderson, who was chairman of the Orient Line of steamships, shared in large measure the enthusiasm of his wife in the women’s movement.
After his demise Mrs Garrett Anderson spent much of her time at Aldeburgh, her residence being Alde House – her paternal home.
A public career was further extended when (in November, 1908) she was elected mayor of the borough, being the first lady mayor chosen in the kingdom.
Mrs Garrett Anderson had been elected a member of the council 12 months prior to her choice as civic head of the borough, and she yielded to the warm wishes expressed for prolongation of her period of office of a second year.
Her father, it may be added, was the first mayor of the “reformed” era...
Mrs Garrett Anderson lived to see the full fruition of her labours realised in the person of her only daughter, Dr Louie Garrett Anderson, the organiser of the first hospital equipped for women which entered upon work near the fighting lines in the earlier phase of the war.
She was afterwards asked to organise and take charge of a military hospital in London, with 500 beds, and on accepting was accorded to rank corresponding with that of major.
Her brother Sir Alan Garrett Anderson, KBE, holds the important post of shipping controller; he succeeded his father in the management of the Orient Line.
Mrs Garrett Anderson was a generous donor to the borough in which she resided, gifts in recent years including £1,000 for the erection of the church house. One of the visitors seen at Alde House in recent years was Mrs Pankhurst. [Emmeline Pankhurst: one-time leader of the British suffragette movement.]