New gallery celebrates life and work of Britain’s first woman doctor

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 10 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3689
  1. David Payne
  1. 1BMJ

The gynaecologist Wendy Savage was driving down London’s Euston Road in 1992 when she spotted protestors fighting to save the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital. Founded in 1890 by the East End pawnbroker’s daughter who became Britain’s first woman to gain a medical qualification, the hospital treated only women and children until its closure in 2000, when services were transferred to the nearby University College Hospital.

Professor Savage founded the “EGA for women” campaign. Its achievements include getting the Queen Anne-style building listed and, to mark the 175th anniversary of Garrett Anderson’s birth on 9 June 1836, launching a gallery on the site to celebrate her life and times.

As well as being the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, Garrett Anderson was England’s first woman mayor (of Aldeburgh, Suffolk) and was active in the suffragette movement. She died in 1917.

The gallery, part of the new headquarters of the public sector union Unison, is housed in the former medical institute room where the hospital’s doctors (all of them women) met to read journal articles at a time when they were barred from professional medical bodies.

The room, now lined with six multimedia touch screens, references the original colour scheme when it was decorated by Garrett Anderson’s sister Agnes, an interior designer who worked for the building’s architect, John McKean Brydon.

Parts of the building were on the brink of collapse when Unison commissioned David Insall Associates to restore it six years ago. The firm tracked down an original fireplace, previously thought lost but rediscovered on a farm in Suffolk owned by one of Garrett Anderson’s relatives.

Speaking at the gallery’s opening last week Professor Savage said, “The building had been left to rot, so getting it listed meant it had to be protected. I think the restorers have done an excellent job, and the architects have also connected the building to Unison’s new premises in a really effective way.”

The former president of the BMA, Averil Mansfield, added, “I was very conscious of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s legacy when I graduated in medicine from Liverpool. There weren’t many women doctors around at the time, so she was an inspiration.”

Garrett Anderson consulted Florence Nightingale about the hospital’s design when it was first built as the New Hospital for Women. At one time it housed a circular ward.

Outside the former hospital is a new sculpture by the artist Wendy Taylor. Its series of concentric rings symbolise unity between values and action, collective strength, and solidarity.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3689

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