The labels “pioneer” and “trailblazer” are often used to describe a person who has made a significant impact on his or her profession. Both words accurately describe Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, MD, the first woman surgeon in England, an advocate for women’s rights, and a champion of the underserved and underprivileged.
During Tuesday’s Olga M. Jonasson Lecture, A Quiet Pioneer Who Started a Revolution, Kathryn D. Anderson, MD, FACS, FRCS, will recall Dr. Garrett Anderson’s contributions to medicine and society.
“To be completely honest, she actually wasn’t all that quiet,” Dr. Anderson said. “As a woman in Victorian England, she could not have accomplished all that she did without making her voice heard.”
Like Dr. Garrett Anderson, who is no relation, Dr. Anderson is a pioneer. She was the first woman President of the American College of Surgeons (2005–2006) and spent 32 years as a pediatric surgeon, practicing in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA.
Dr. Garrett Anderson was born in 1836 in London’s Whitechapel district during a time when women generally were not allowed to pursue most of the educational or occupational opportunities enjoyed by men.
“She was one of 11 children and their father was a man ahead of his time who encouraged all of his children, including Elizabeth, to be curious and explore their passions,” Dr. Anderson said. “When she decided she wanted to study medicine, a virtually unheard of notion for a woman at that time, her father was very supportive.”
Her initial attempts to apply for university medical training in England were met with staunch denials, however.
“Over the course of the next 10 years or so, she worked as a nurse and went to apothecary school, finally earning her apothecary credentials in England,” Dr. Anderson said. “Becoming recognized as a surgeon in England, however, was even more difficult, as there was no formal training in surgery for either men or women anywhere at the time.”
Dr. Garrett Anderson eventually found a hospital in England that would allow her to practice surgery. But when she planned to perform an operation that had not been performed before, the hospital forbade it. So, in 1865, Dr. Garrett Anderson set up an operating room in a private house where she successfully performed the operation. That same year, there was a cholera outbreak in England and Dr. Garrett Anderson’s practice thrived as she treated both rich and poor patients equally.
Dr. Garrett Anderson ultimately earned her medical degree in France in 1870 and, in 1873, she became the first woman granted membership in the British Medical Association.
In her later years, Dr. Garrett Anderson would play integral roles in the establishment of the New Hospital for Women and the development of the London School of Medicine for Women. She also become an active suffragette and advocate of equal rights for women. In a fitting footnote to her life, she was elected mayor of Aldeburgh in the English county of Suffolk, becoming the first female mayor in England in 1908.
“She passed away in 1917 after helping to pave the way—through her example and her work—for many women in all walks of life,” Dr. Anderson said. “She helped to change the face of women in Victorian England into a more modern version—a legacy that continues to this day.”
The Olga M. Jonasson Lecture was established by the Women in Surgery Committee to honor the memory of Olga M. Jonasson, MD, FACS, who died in August 2006. The lectureship is a testimony to leadership and education in surgery and a reflection of the capacity of women to reach academic pinnacles.