This weekend (October 7/8) hundreds of people will be taking part in commemorative events in Aldeburgh celebrating one of the town’s greatest achievers. Her name was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
I knew she was the UK’s first female doctor and the first female mayor, but I wanted to find out more about this pioneering woman, so I went to The Long Shop in Leiston to talk to Anna Mercer – the curator of an exhibition on Elizabeth’s life. She also happens to be Elizabeth’s great, great niece.
“Elizabeth was a remarkable woman”, Anna explained. “Women didn’t go into the professions at the time. Very few middle class women even went to school and they certainly didn’t aspire to have a career, so Elizabeth really led the way.”
Elizabeth was born in 1836. She grew up in Aldeburgh. Her parents were quite progressive, and after some initial opposition her father, Newson Garrett, supported her ambition to become a doctor – something that was unheard of at the time.
“Initially she went to Middlesex University, but students complained” says Anna. “Some said it was ‘an outrage on their natural instincts’ to have females learning medicine. She had to leave, so she went to the Society of Apothecaries to learn medicine enabling her to practice.
Elizabeth faced huge opposition from the medical establishment. She couldn’t work in a hospital without a full medical degree and no UK university would admit her. She went to the University of Paris and got her degree there, she then returned to London and set up her own hospital run solely by women, giving them experience and employment opportunities.
“The London Hospital of Medicine for Women was a major contribution to the health and welfare of women” Anna says. “In treating the health problems of women and children the hospital was pioneering and it also allowed women doctors and medical staff to learn so much in an otherwise male-dominated world”.
Something that touched me was how modern Elizabeth was in her attitudes to women and their position after marriage. She wrote in a letter to her sister – the suffragist Millicent Fawcett – “I am sure the woman question will never be solved…so long as marriage is seen as incompatible with an independent career”. Something that women continue to struggle with today are juggling expectations on career, marriage and children. Elizabeth was challenging these more than 150 years ago.
Eventually Elizabeth retired to her beloved Aldeburgh, but her pioneering didn’t stop. She continued her support of women’s suffrage and then became the mayor of Aldeburgh – the first woman in the country to hold a mayoral office.
This weekend the town will celebrate their heroine, including the unveiling of a plaque in the parish church where she’s buried.
“I’m so proud of Elizabeth”, Anna says. “It’s so important we continue to celebrate her and her legacy and to have women like her as role models. We can learn so much from her sheer determination in the face of opposition and the way she kept on campaigning for issue she felt were important.”
Elizabeth died just a year before women won the right to vote – but there’s no doubt her vision, purpose and determination paved the way for so many in education, medicine and social reform.