Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Author: Jo Manton
The life of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first ever registered British medical doctor, is an odyssey of a woman’s search for ‘some cause to give meaning to her life’ in a society that limited female participation to all but the most mundane of activities. The book portrays how Anderson rejected the restrictive social and medical conventions of her time to attain the highest pinnacle of the profession that had arrogantly shut its doors against her. The biography depicts how she applied ‘an intense will to succeed‘ and an ‘impersonal determination‘ to overcome the traditions and prejudices that had kept women out of medical practice for centuries, and it highlights how her remarkable achievement opened up medical education to all women. Whilst the book explores Anderson’s exemplary medical practice, and her ‘courage, sense of duty, good judgment and warm humanity‘, this was not a hagiographic account as the author also pointed out her shortcomings, from her ‘often brusque‘ bedside manner, to her occasionally ‘devastating‘ candour which ‘mortally’ offended some people (pages 94 and 261-266).
Perhaps typical of the early women who dared to pursue a path to medicine, it was not surprising that Anderson did not experience any ‘sudden moment of illumination‘ to pursue a career as a doctor; rather, the author described her attraction to the profession as ‘slow but decisive‘. The biography particularly explored the confidence and self-assurance Anderson required to even contemplate becoming a doctor at the time, and it attributed this to her inherent personal traits such as her intelligence, her native vigour, and her strong will which ‘all clamoured to be put to work’. The author attributed many of these qualities to Louisa, her mother, who was her first teacher and who functioned as ‘the centre of gravity in the household’. The book also highlighted the part played by her father who applied his liberal views and open-mindedness to give his children ‘the best education his money could buy’, and to educate ‘the girls as thoroughly as the boys’. The book also explained how being ‘bold, impulsive and inpatient‘ impelled him to support his daughter’s quest with his personal drive, his social connections, and his financial muscle (pages 41-42, 30-33, 45, 49 and 26-27).
Beyond her personal attributes and immediate family, the biography also documents the influence of other dominant personalities who fashioned her outlook, directed her mission, and enabled her endeavours. According to the book, her ambition to become a doctor was formed and firmed up by her contact with the leading middle class women rights activists of the day who ‘were prepared to give up leisure, comfort, security and privilege for the chance to be full-grown individuals in their own rights’, and who ‘intended to win a fuller, more interesting life for women of their own social class’. Such people included Emily Davis, a woman with ‘a caustic wit and a clear, original mind‘ who had developed ‘a feeling of resentment at the subjugation of woman’; Davis, the author noted, was ‘convinced of the need for women doctors to attend to women and children’, and she saw in Anderson ‘the ideal medical practitioner‘ with ‘untapped reserves of intelligence and ambition‘. Anderson’s confidence in her pursuit was also boosted by Elizabeth Blackwell, the first ever woman medical graduate who the author said ‘stressed the value of women physicians to their own sex in sickness, and the contribution they could make to the education of wives and mothers’ (pages 40-41, 45 and 51-53).
The most inspiring feature of the biography is undoubtedly its account of how Anderson realised her ambition of becoming a doctor. Consistent with her principle that ‘belief…demanded action‘, the book chronicled how she ‘set to work to fill the daunting gaps in her education’ by learning Greek and Latin; by improving her English composition; by reading the medical school prospectus; and by paying for private tuition. More industriously perhaps was how she became ‘an unofficial medical student’ whilst gaining nursing experience at the Middlesex Hospital – a daringly ingenious step that enabled her to attend lectures, dissect, and do laboratory studies. Denied further access to this experience, partly because the male medical students felt threatened by her excellent performance and ‘her cool composure‘, the author said ‘the thought of giving up did not cross her mind’ as she ‘sent off letter after letter to different universities’ asking to undergo their examinations. It was a reflection of the times that her efforts were ‘all in vain’ until The Society of Apothecaries reluctantly accepted her request because their charter did not legally exclude women from its examinations. Although all the medical schools declined her access to their courses and lectures, the book recounted how she passed the examinations anyway, marking ‘the first time in British history’ that ‘a woman had passed through a recognized course of medical training and secured a modern legal qualification in her own country’ (pages 72, 82- 95, 99-118, 141-145 and 160-163).
Demonstrating that ‘life as a doctor was not going to be easy‘ for Anderson after her graduation, the author narrated how the medical profession barred her from ‘any hospital appointment’ and from ‘any army, navy or even poor-law post’. Thus restricted, the author described how she set up an independent successful dispensary and clinic for women and children conforming ‘to the most rigorous standards of dignity and professional etiquette‘. To further her professional standing, the book recounted her excellent performance at the rigorous Paris medical examinations, passing it to become ‘the first woman M.D. of the Sorbonne’ – a ‘triumph‘ which the author said ‘marked the beginning of a new maturity which she will consolidate her career and enhance her reputation and facilitate public acceptance‘. The book also exhaustively reviewed her other sterling works that further enhanced her renown and public status – teaching; writing case reports and books; serving on school, hospital and parliamentary boards and committees; involvement in the women’s suffrage movement; and helping to found the Hospital for Women and the London Medical School for Women (pages 167-168-173, 176-177, 185-199, 219, 203-210, 223-228 and 240-254).
Beside its biographical narrative, the book is also rich in the history of medical practice dating back to prehistoric Britain; this narrative highlighted the varying fortunes of female medical practice, and it identified the reasons women were later excluded from the prominent medical roles they previously played. One such event the book stressed was medical practice coming ‘under the control of the newly founded College of Physicians‘, an organisation that formally restricted female participation in medicine. Another limiting factor the author cited was ‘the devitalizing ideal of ladylike idleness‘ prevalent in the late eighteenth century which she said was ‘such a bane to high-spirited Victorian girls‘. Indeed the author asserted that ‘the long reign of Victoria saw a development in the character of medical practice which promised to exclude women finally and completely from the profession’, and that ‘by the mid-nineteenth century the figure of the ideal physician was clearly drawn as a scholar and a gentleman, a status to which…no woman could aspire’. Apart from a minority of male physicians such as Sir James Paget who were ‘warmly and sincerely in favour of women physicians’, the book demonstrated that ‘vested interests, prejudice, and custom so potent in British society’ made most male physicians antagonistic to the idea of women practicing medicine (pages 55-66).
This is an exhilarating and inspiring story of the qualities and circumstances that produced the first woman doctor in Britain, a society rife with resistance to the concept at the time. With simple and focused prose, the author graphically portrays the overwhelming challenges that faced Anderson before and after qualification. The author also helpfully set this development in the context of the overall history of medicine, and the evolving social milieu of her time. The only downside of the book’s narrative is the somewhat disparaging tone of its portrayal of Sophia Jakes-Blake, another woman medical pioneer and contemporary to Anderson. This however did not detract from what is an excellent biography of a truly trailblazing woman doctor.
This book brings out the values of determination and hard work in the pursuit of noble goals, and the importance of pursuing these objectives even when the odds are stacked against their attainment. It also highlights the ideal character and work ethics which Anderson symbolised, and to which every doctor – male or female – should aspire. In narrating what was eventually a successful female medical career, the book drew lessons on how singular individual actions can facilitate broader social change – in this case the opening up of medicine to a wider population of similarly driven women, and the overall enhancement of medical practice. The book depicts a life that epitomises the highest standards of medicine, and I recommend it to all doctors
Publisher, Place, Year: Metheun, London, 1965
Number of chapters: 20
Number of pages: 382
Star rating: 5