Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Newson Garrett (1812–1893) and Louise Dunnell (1813–1903), was born in Whitechapel, London on 9th June 1836. Elizabeth's father, was the grandson of Richard Garrett, who founded the successful agricultural machinery works at Leiston.
Elizabeth's father had originally ran a pawnbroker's shop in London, but by the time she was born he owned a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. The business was a great success and by the 1850s Garrett could afford to send his children away to be educated.
After two years at a school in Blackheath, Elizabeth was expected to stay in the family home until she found a man to marry. However, Elizabeth was more interested in obtaining employment. While visiting a friend in London in 1854, Elizabeth met Emily Davies, a young women with strong opinions about women's rights. Davies introduced Elizabeth to other young feminists living in London.
In 1859 Garrett met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to qualify as a doctor. Elizabeth decided she also wanted a career in medicine. Her parents were initially hostile to the idea but eventually her father, Newson Garrett, agreed to support her attempts to become Britain's first woman doctor.
Garrett tried to study in several medical schools but they all refused to accept a woman student. Garrett therefore became a nurse at Middlesex Hospital and attended lectures that were provided for the male doctors. After complaints from male students Elizabeth was forbidden entry to the lecture hall.
Garrett discovered that the Society of Apothecaries did not specify that females were banned for taking their examinations. In 1865 Garrett sat and passed the Apothecaries examination. As soon as Garrett was granted the certificate that enabled her to become a doctor, the Society of Apothecaries changed their regulations to stop other women from entering the profession in this way. With the financial support of her father, Elizabeth Garrett was able to establish a medical practice in London.
Elizabeth Garrett was now a committed feminist and in 1865 she joined with her friends Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss to form a woman's discussion group called the Kensington Society. The following year the group organized a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.
Although Parliament rejected the petition, the women did receive support from Liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett. Elizabeth became friendly with Fawcett, the blind MP for Brighton, but she rejected his marriage proposal, as she believed it would damage her career. Fawcett later married her younger sister Millicent Garrett.
In 1866 Garrett established a dispensary for women in London (later renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital) and four years later was appointed a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. Elizabeth was determined to obtain a medical degree and after learning French, went to the University of Paris where she sat and passed the required examinations. However, the British Medical Register refused to recognize her MD degree.
During this period Garrett became involved in a dispute with Josephine Butler over the Contagious Diseases Acts. Josephine believed these acts discriminated against women and felt that all feminists should support their abolition. Garrett took the view that the measures provided the only means of protecting innocent women and children.
Although she was a supporter of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) she was not an active member during this period. According to her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, she thought "it would be unwise to be identified with a second unpopular cause. Nevertheless she gave her whole-hearted adherence."
The 1870 Education Act allowed women to vote and serve on School Boards. Garrett stood in London and won more votes than any other candidate. The following year she married James Skelton Anderson, a co-owner of the of the Orient Steamship Company, and the financial adviser to the East London Hospital.
Like other feminists at the time, Elizabeth Garrett retained her own surname. Although James Anderson supported Elizabeth's desire to continue as a doctor the couple became involved in a dispute when he tried to insist that he should take control of her earnings.
Elizabeth had three children, Louisa Garrett Anderson, Margaret who died of meningitis, and Alan. This did not stop her continuing her medical career and in 1872 she opened the New Hospital for Women in London, a hospital that was staffed entirely by women. Elizabeth Blackwell, the woman who inspired her to become a doctor, was appointed professor of gynecology.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson also joined with Sophia Jex-Blake to establish a London Medical School for Women. Jex-Blake expected to put in charge but Garrett believed that her temperament made her unsuitable for the task and arranged for Isabel Thorne to be appointed instead. In 1883 Garrett Anderson was elected Dean of the London School of Medicine. Sophia Jex-Blake was the only member of the council who voted against this decision.
After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Elizabeth's sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was elected president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. By this time Elizabeth was a member of the Central Committee of the NUWSS.
In 1902 Garrett Anderson retired to Aldeburgh. Garrett Anderson continued her interest in politics and in 1908 she was elected mayor of the town - the first woman mayor in England. When Garret Anderson was seventy-two, she became a member of the militant Women's Social and Political Union. In 1908 was lucky not to be arrested after she joined with other members of the WSPU to storm the House of Commons. In October 1909 she went on a lecture tour with Annie Kenney.
However, Elizabeth left the WSPU's in 1911 as she objected to their arson campaign. Her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson remained in the WSPU and in 1912 was sent to prison for her militant activities. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was upset when she heard the news and wrote to her sister: "I am in hopes she will take her punishment wisely, that the enforced solitude will help her to see more in focus than she always does." However, the authorities realised the dangers of her going on hunger strike and released her.
Evelyn Sharp spent time with Elizabeth and Louisa Garrett Anderson at their cottage in the Highlands: "Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who had a summer cottage in that beautiful part of the Highlands. I went there on both occasions with her daughter Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson, and we had great times together climbing the easier mountains and revelling in wonderful effects of colour that I have seen nowhere else except possibly in parts of Ireland.... It was, however, so entertaining to meet both these famous public characters in the more intimate and human surroundings of a summer holiday that we did not grudge the time given to working up a suffrage meeting in the village instead of tramping about the hills. Old Mrs. Garrett Anderson-old only in years, for there was never a younger woman in heart and mind and outlook than she was when I knew her before the war was a fascinating combination of the autocrat and the gracious woman of the world."
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died in 17th December 1917.