Saturday, 9 June 2012

It takes tenacity...

Someone has surely achieved outstanding success if they become a physician in the teeth of the opposition of the medical establishment, even against an outright refusal to allow them to study medicine in their own country; then become active in fighting one of the great cholera epidemics that befell London in the nineteenth century; then found a hospital that is now part of one of the leading teaching institutions in Britain; and finally even win office as mayor of their local town despite not being a voter themselves.

Pretty remarkable, in fact. Particularly if you take into account that the main obstacle to achieving that success was that the person in question was a woman. In England, she was allowed to practice as a nurse and to follow medical education up to the point of passing, with the best marks of her year, the final examination of the Society of Apothecaries – who promptly changed their rules to prevent any further women winning admission. 

She then applied to the leading medical schools of the country, all of which turned her down. When she heard that the Sorbonne Medical School in Paris had just decided to start admitting women, she learned French and studied there, becoming the first female physician to qualify in France. She then returned to become Britain’s first practising woman physician, gaining admission to the British Medical Association which, like the Apothecaries, then changed its rules to prevent any other woman joining – for another nineteen years.

In 1908, she became Mayor of Aldeburgh in Suffolk where she lived, the first female Mayor of an English town. It would be another ten years before British women would be granted the right to vote, twenty before they were granted it on the same terms as men.

Who was this remarkable woman?

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. I first became aware of her when I visited Ipswich Hospital, in the same county as Aldeburgh, and saw its Garrett Anderson building. In London, the University College Hospital Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing is the heir of the hospital she founded not far away on the Euston Road.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: trailblazer

She was born on 9 June 1836, making today another anniversary for women in healthcare. Remember to raise a glass to her achievements. Even if you're not reading this on 9 June.

Above all, remember her when people tell you that things have always been a certain way and keeping them like that is just the natural order.

When they tell you that it is unthinkable that Britain give up on the royal family, that the nation has always been a monarchy and must remain one (which isn’t even true: some of the most substantial progress the country has seen occurred while it was a Republic under Cromwell in the seventeenth century).

When they tell you that the right to bear arms is fundamental in the United States and to give it up would an assault on that nation
’s essence.

When they tell you that Europe is and must be a collection of separate states who at best can cooperate to cover their differences, but can never truly unite.

When they tell you those things, just remember the Society of Apothecaries closing ranks to keep any further women out, the BMA doing the same, the good burghers of Aldeburgh putting a mayor in office while the nation refused her the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Then think how that behaviour now seems laughable but also a little obscene. Think that the same may happen to many of the bizarre practices we cling to today, because many believe them to reflect immutable and God-given truths. They don
t. And proving they don't just takes tenacity.

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