14. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson overcame a number of social obstacles to become Britain’s first female physician
In 19th century England, women weren’t supposed to have careers. They certainly weren’t supposed to be doctors. And they couldn’t even if they wanted to, for medical schools were for male students only. Not that this stopped Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. The Londoner broke all the rules to become Britain’s first female physician, making waves and then making history in the process.
Despite being born into relative poverty, Anderson’s father worked hard and became successful enough to ensure each of his 12 children got a good education. After her schooling, it was expected that Anderson would marry and settle down. However, influenced by her feminist friends and by the example of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor, she decided to pursue a career in medicine instead. Since all the university courses were closed to her, she enrolled on a nursing course and then sneaked into classes for student doctors. Before long, she got kicked out of the school but still managed to qualify as a doctor since the Society of Apothecaries had never thought to prevent women from sitting its exams.
Anderson established a dispensary for women in London’s East End. She finally married and had a family of her own but was determined not to slow down professionally. She served as a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. However, she still had no proper medical degree. To fix this, she taught herself French, headed to Paris and graduated from university there. Upon her return to London, she established the pioneering New Hospital for Women in London. Her hero and inspiration, Elizabeth Blackwell, was appointed head of gynecology, joining an all-female staff.
Even when she retired and moved to the coast, Anderson kept on being a feminist pioneer. She became the Mayor of her small town, making her the first female to hold such a post in England. Along with her daughter, she joined the Suffragettes, campaigning for the vote for women. She died in December 1917, just months before the British Parliament agreed to give women the right to vote. Anderson did, however, live to see the laws changed to allow female doctors.