Who was the first British woman doctor?


1836 – 1917

Although critical of the abilities of her teachers, Elizabeth Garrett was a well-educated woman.

Born in London in 1836 into a prospering family with an entrepreneurial father, Elizabeth grew up in Suffolk. In 1860 she met Emily Davies, one of the leading lights of the emerging movement for women’s equality.

Elizabeth and Emily were determined to break down the closed doors that barred women from universities and the practice of medicine.

With the support of her wealthy father, Elizabeth worked as a nurse at the Middlesex Hospital while studying various aspects of medicine with a private tutor and at some classes given by the hospital apothecary.

Elizabeth began to acquire medical qualifications but was pressurised by the authorities to leave the Middlesex Hospital and she was refused admittance to any of the other medical schools.

Elizabeth continued to study medicine privately and then she worked out how to circumvent the medical establishment by becoming a member of the Society of Apothecaries.

In April 1864 it was announced that “the ladies” were beginning to take the medical profession by storm!

Apothecaries’ Hall had been forced to admit Miss Elizabeth Garrett within its sacred precincts. The pertinacious young lady had, after duly listening to lectures, bravely faced the examiners and passed the exams in triumph. If she was equally successful in her future examinations, she would soon be Doctor Elizabeth.

The prejudice against women in medicine was clearly on display in the press.

The reporter stated that the prospect of women in medicine was serious! The strong minded women who maintained that whatever a man could do a woman could do, were ignoring the essential difference produced by sex; there was nothing a woman could do that a man couldn’t do better if he wanted to.

Writing specifically about the medical profession the reporter said that most people would feel indisposed to consult a feminine doctor if one of the male sex could anywhere be found. Of what use then would be Miss Garrett’s diploma? Much had been said by the advocates of feminine surgery, in favour of “doctoresses” for ladies who might be supposed more willing to confide the details of their ailments to a woman than to a man.

As a matter of fact, the report went on, it would be found that women did not believe in women doctors. They naturally and wisely preferred to be advised by one whose strong will sufficed to control their own. In serious illness the doctor must be a despot. He must never be disobeyed. A woman doctor in this position would be useless. Her fair patients would laugh her to scorn. No: female doctors were especially valueless to their own sex; and it could be assumed that Miss Garrett and those who would probably emulate her did not look forward to doctoring men.

And sure enough, in order to ensure that no other women followed in Elizabeth’s footsteps the Apothecaries Society promptly introduced a new rule banning any further women from joining.

As a licensed member of the Society of Apothecaries Elizabeth was still not allowed to work in any hospitals so in 1865 she set up her own practice in London.

She established a dispensary for women and children which by 1872 had evolved into the New Hospital for Women and Children.

Meanwhile Elizabeth pursued her medical studies at The Sorbonne in Paris where she qualified as a doctor in 1870.

In 1873 Elizabeth was allowed to join the British Medical Association and remained the only woman member for almost twenty years.

In 1871 Elizabeth married a wealthy businessman, James Anderson, whose family owned the Orient Steamship Company, a pre-cursor of P&O. Elizabeth continued to practice medicine after her marriage although she was unable to save her second child who died of meningitis in 1875.

Elizabeth continued to campaign for equal rights for women and was active in local politics as well as medicine.

Photo credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons