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Royal Free Hospital Medical Library Blog



Following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

By Jennifer R Ford, on 21 February 2017

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Visitors to the Royal Free Library may have noticed our display on the ground floor, full of historical tit-bits on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She is a hugely influential figure in the history of medicine in Britain, and has a special connection to the Library here in the Royal Free Hospital.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, being enrolled on the Medical Register in 1866. Born in 1836 at a time when it was considered highly improper for a young lady to desire to work at all (never mind in the controversial field of medicine) each step of the way in her pursuit of a career was a battle fought against prejudice and established tradition.

In July 1866 Elizabeth opened the St Mary’s Dispensary for Poor Women and Children in Seymour Place. Six years later she founded the New Hospital for Women, where women came from all over London for the opportunity to be seen by one of the all-women staff.

In 1877, the Royal Free board of governors agreed that the Hospital would be the first to allow women students access to the wards and out-patient department, opening its doors to students from the London School of Medicine for Women, founded by Sophia Jex-Blake and her supporters. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was appointed dean of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1883, becoming the first woman dean of a recognised medical school in the U.K.  In 1898, a permanent association between the two institutions was agreed, becoming the London Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine.

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Here in the Royal Free Library you may have noticed a beautiful antique desk on the first floor next the quiet study area (pictured). This desk is a popular spot for students to study at – imbued with an eventful history, perhaps they feel inspired without quite knowing why! This desk belonged to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson herself, and was donated to the Royal Free Hospital by her. The strong sense of purpose she must have felt as she worked at this desk lives on with our medical students today, forging paths of their own in the dynamic world of medicine.

Sources: AMIDON, L. A. 1996. An illustrated history of the Royal Free Hospital, London, Special Trustees for the Royal Free Hospital.

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