by Sue | Sep 8, 2017 |

The Celebration Of A Life


Elizabeth Garrett Anderson 1836-1917

The towns of Aldeburgh and Leiston are celebrating the life and achievements of their most famous daughter, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson this year. A series of events will be staged culminating in a commemorative weekend starting Friday 8 October. There are also two complementary exhibitions in her honour; Aldeburgh Museum has one highlighting her early life and retirement and the Long Shop Museum in Leiston are celebrating her medical career.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is probably best known for being the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain. She was also the first female mayor in Britain - mayor of the town of Aldeburgh in fact!

Elizabeth was born in 1836 in London, the second of eleven children. Her father, Newson Garrett, came from Leiston in Suffolk and his family had been ironworkers in East Suffolk since the early seventeenth century. He had left for London upon finishing school, where he fell in love with his brother's sister-in-law, Louisa Dunnell.

They moved back to Suffolk in 1841, and bought a barley and coal merchants business in Snape and then constructed Snape Maltings, a large range of buildings for malting the barley. The family lived in a Georgian house opposite the church in Aldeburgh until 1852, during which time Newsonís business successfully expanded allowing him to build Alde House on a hill behind the town.

Elizabeth was allowed to freely explore the surrounding town, which was unusual for the time. Some attribute the good health she maintained throughout her life to the fresh sea air she could access here on the Suffolk Coast. She was encouraged to take an interest in local politics, and was at ease with people of all classes in the area. Perhaps inspired by their father’s pioneering spirit the Garrett children went on to become achievers in the professional classes of late-Victorian England.

Since there was no school in Aldeburgh, Elizabeth initially learned writing, reading and arithmetic from her mother. From the age of 10, she and her sister were educated with a live-in governess, and three years later Newson, who wanted to give his children the best education possible, sent his two daughters to a private school in London. On completing her education Elizabeth was expected to marry well and live the life of a lady. However she then met two women who would change the direction of her life; the feminist Emily Davies and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman physician. The latter convinced Elizabeth that she should become a doctor.

Despite several attempts she was unable to enrol in any recognised medical school due to her gender. Determined not to be beaten she joined the Society of Apothecaries who did not specifically forbid women from taking their examinations, in 1865 she passed their exams and gained a certificate which enabled her to become a doctor. The society then changed it’s rules to prevent other women doing the same thing.

In 1866 she established a dispensary for women in London, backed by her father and also became active in the women's suffrage movement. She joined the First British Womenís Suffrage Committee that year and, along with Emily Davies, presented petitions signed by more than 1,500 asking that female heads of household be given the vote. Four years later Elizabeth was made a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. Here she met James Anderson, who she married in 1871 and with whom she had three children. However she still retained a desire to have a medical degree, so she taught herself French and went to the University of Paris. She duly obtained her degree but the British Medical Register still refused to recognise her qualification.

In 1872, Elizabeth founded the New Hospital for Women in London (later renamed after its founder), staffed entirely by women. Her determination for women’s rights in medicine finally came to fruition in 1876 when an act was passed permitting women to enter the medical professions. In 1883, she was appointed dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, which she had helped to found in 1874, and oversaw it’s ongoing expansion. 

In 1902, Anderson retired to Aldeburgh and six years later she became mayor of the town, the first ever female mayor in England. She continued to give speeches for suffrage, before increasing militant activity in the movement led to her withdrawal. Her daughter Louisa, also a physician, continued to take a very active role campaigning for women’s rights, spending time in prison in 1912 for her suffrage activities.

Elizabeth devoted the rest of her retirement to Alde House, gardening, and travelling with younger members of the extended family. She died on 17 December 1917 and is buried in Aldeburgh.

A full program of events can be found here: Long Shop Museum

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