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On September 28 in 1865, east London pioneer and political Elizabeth Garrett Anderson activist qualified to become Britain’s first practising woman doctor.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of 12 children born to a Whitechapel couple, went on to defy convention as the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor as well challenge society across the spectrum by championing the feminist movement.

Born in 1836, she was educated in Blackheath and fell into domestic service. Her medical ambition was thwarted when she was denied a place at a number of specialist schools. She responded by enrolling in nursing school, attending classes for male doctors and taking private evening classes.

The Society of Apothecaries did not specifically bar women from taking exams and, in 1862, she managed to pass their exams to gain a certificate which would allow her to become a doctor. The society immediately changed its rules to ban any further women qualifying.

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Though she was now a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, as a woman, Garrett could not take up a medical post in any hospital. So in September 1865, Garrett opened her own practice at 20 Upper Berkeley Street, London.

She had few patients and the prejudice was great. But soon after she began her work, there was an outbreak of cholera and many men put aside their concerns about receiving treatment from a woman.

By then Elizabeth had already opened St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children, at 69 Seymour Place tending to 3,000 new patients and many times that as out-patients.

She was made one of the visiting physicians of the East London Hospital for Children, becoming the first woman in Britain to be appointed to a medical post and she gained membership of the British Medical Association and remained the only female member for 19 years after the Association voted against the admission of further women.

In 1871 she married James George Skelton Anderson and had three children, two girls and a boy. Her baby daughter Margaret died in 1875 of meningitis. By 1873 the demands of private practice and motherhood led her to resign her senior posts.

Elizabeth juggles career and family

She once remarked that “a doctor leads two lives, the professional and the private, and the boundaries between the two are never traversed”.

Her determination cleared a path for other women, and in 1876 a law was passed allowing women to enter the medical professions.

Elizabeth went on to co-found the first hospital staffed by women, and become the first dean of a British medical school, the first woman elected to a school board and the first female mayor and magistrate.

Throughout her career she was interested in the women’s suffrage movement and became more active after her husband’s death in 1907. Her daughter, Louisa, also a physician, spent time in prison in 1912 for her suffrage protests.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died in December 1917, aged 81.