International Women’s Day 2019

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this year I thought it would be good hear about the life and work of one of Suffolk’s most famous women.

In December 1917, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of the most famous residents of Aldeburgh, died, writes Dr Lucy Harvard.

Not only was she the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, but also the first female Dean of a medical school and the first British female mayor – of Aldeburgh 
no less!

As both a junior doctor and a student of the History of Medicine, I have studied her remarkable life and tried to establish just how she succeeded. Can we still learn from her example, or has too much time passed to draw significant parallels in today’s modern world?

Garrett Anderson faced staunch opposition from the male medical establishment but succeeded in obtaining her medical qualification in 1865, after many years of study.

In 1872 she opened the New Hospital for Women in London and later became Dean of a medical school for women which later became part of what is now the medical school of University College London, where I trained. More locally, a wing at Ipswich Hospital is named after her.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson also had an enduring commitment to women’s suffrage and she played a significant role alongside her sister, Millicent Fawcett, who was a leader in the movement.

It is easy to marvel at the achievements of this determined woman. How did she do it?

Coming from Garrett stock was clearly a real advantage. Not only did Elizabeth receive significant financial support from her family but she was also well educated, rare for girls of that time.

Furthermore she gained plenty of emotional support and encouragement, especially from her father. The Garretts certainly had innovation in their blood since the original Long Shop engineering works in Leiston was the first example of assembly line production by which steam engines and agricultural equipment were constructed.

Elizabeth’s Father Newson Garrett built Snape Maltings, which is now the internationally famous concert hall. Although initially dismissive of her aspiration to become a doctor, he came round when he realised how determined and resolute she was. He funded her studies and introduced her to eminent physicians of the time. He did everything he could to support and promote her.

In this sense, Elizabeth’s family connections did confer some advantage. Would she have been so successful if she hadn’t been so well connected?

Garrett Anderson certainly had great confidence and bravado and this is apparent in a letter she wrote in which she stated: “My strength lies in the extra amount of daring which I have as a family endowment. All Garretts have it.”

Not only did EGA have an unwavering belief in herself but she was also strategic and insightful. During training her tact proved to be a key attribute. She knew that in order to get what she wanted, reputation was everything and patience essential – she had to play the long game.

She also married comparatively late for the period, at the age of 34. Importantly, marriage took place only after she had successfully obtained her Paris MD in 1870. She was a modern career woman in that she put her vocation before her desire to have a family.

She was clearly an early multi-tasker since she managed to balance a successful career with a husband, children, and a fulfilling family life: a feat coveted by many young professional women today. In the late 1800s she shone a bright light into the future of womankind.

There is no doubt that she was truly excellent as both a medical student and a doctor, regularly obtaining top marks in examinations. After qualifying she became an accomplished surgeon, despite finding performing surgery stressful.

In reference to an ovariotomy performed at New Hospital for Women in 1878, the annual hospital report stated: “The committee are not aware of this formidable operation having been ever before, in Europe at least, being performed by a woman.”

Garrett Anderson had a fire in her belly that consumed and broke down all obstacles in her path. She changed the course of women in medicine, and more broadly, had an integral role in promoting the women’s suffrage movement on a national scale.

Women today can identify with EGA given that she mastered the ability of the ‘modern woman’ to have both a successful career and a fulfilling family life. She is an inspiration to women everywhere because of her uncompromising steely resolve – not just the girl from the iron works in Leiston but a glorious pioneer indeed.

• Dr Lucy Havard, a former head girl at Woodbridge School, qualified as a doctor after graduating from UCL in 2013. She is an Acute Medicine Clinical Fellow at Addenbrooke’s.  Lucy is fascinated with history and is about to begin an MSc in early modern history at Cambridge University.

First published 19 January 2018 in the East Anglian Daily Press 

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