Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917), the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon, is a well-known name in the history of women’s rights. Lesser renowned but still important is her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, who followed Elizabeth into the medical profession and Suffrage campaigns. Whilst her aunt, Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), belonged to the Suffragist movement, Louisa joined the more militant Suffragettes.
Born on 28th July 1873 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Louisa was the eldest of Elizabeth and James George Skelton Anderson’s three children. Elizabeth was a co-founder of the London School of Medicine for Women and later Britain’s first female mayor. Louisa’s father co-owned the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, more commonly known as P&O.
As a child, Louisa attended St Andrews School for Girls Company, a boarding school in Scotland, later renamed St Leonards. Founded in 1877, the first headmistress, Louisa Lumsden (1840-1935), believed “a girl should receive an education that is as good as her brother’s, if not better.” The school advocated for higher education for women, which paved the way for Louisa to receive her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1898.
In 1900, Louisa received her Doctor of Medicine and enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the United States for post-graduate studies. Despite her academic achievements, Louisa could not find a hospital willing to employ a female doctor. Instead, she returned to England, where her mother had founded the New Hospital for Women, now renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Obstetric Hospital. Louisa began working as a surgical assistant in 1902 before working her way up to a senior surgeon. Her role involved gynaecological and general operations, including hysterectomies and uterine cancer surgeries.
Louisa joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1903, which used democratic and non-militant tactics to protest in favour of female emancipation. The NUWSS was led by Millicent Fawcett, the sister of Louisa’s mother. Despite the family connection, Louisa felt frustrated with the NUWSS’s lack of progress, so she became a member of the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907.
The WSPU, led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her daughters, Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960), were known for their acts of civil unrest, including breaking windows, heckling politicians and holding loud demonstrations and marches. Many members of the WSPU, or Suffragettes as the Daily Mail called them, frequently found themselves arrested for their actions. Regardless of this risk, Louisa devoted her time to the union.
On Friday 18th November 1910, Louisa and her mother joined 300 women to march to parliament and petition Prime Minister Asquith (1852-1928) for voting rights. Louisa and Elizabeth were in the first group to arrive in Westminster, with Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876-1948). They were taken to Asquith’s office, but the Prime Minister refused to see them. After leaving the building, they witnessed a violent clash between the demonstrating women and the police.
Nicknamed ‘Black Friday’, the marching women were met by lines of policemen who subjected them to violence and, in many cases, sexual assault. Male bystanders felt encouraged to join in the melee. Several women suffered injuries, and the police arrested four men and 115 women, including Louisa. The remaining protestors and the families of the women in prison created a public outcry about the unnecessary actions of the police. To keep the peace, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the Home Secretary, ordered the release of all prisoners, stating “on this occasion no public advantage would be gained by proceeding with the prosecution.”
Louisa spent time in Holloway prison in 1912 after throwing a brick through a window and participating in other Suffragette activities. HM Prison Holloway was the largest women’s prison in western Europe until its closure in 2016. Many Suffragettes were imprisoned during the years preceding the First World War. In protest, several women went on hunger strike and were subjected to force-feeding. One of Louisa’s fellow window-smashers, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), composed the official anthem of the WSPU to words by Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952), which they performed during their stay at Holloway in 1912.
In 1914, Louisa left the WSPU to form the United Suffragists, which allowed men and non-militant Suffragists to join former Suffragettes in the ongoing campaign for the right to vote. Supported by the artist Patricia Woodlock (1873-c.1930), Louisa ran the Edinburgh branch of the United Suffragists. They adopted the Votes for Women newspaper, which formerly belonged to the WSPU.
Not much information exists about Louisa’s private life, but her friend, Dr Flora Murray (1869-1923), is frequently described as Louisa’s partner, suggesting a lesbian relationship. Murray, originally from Dumfries, Scotland, started living with Louisa in 1914. Before then, she and Louisa established the Women’s Hospital for Children at 688 Harrow Road, London, in 1912. The hospital provided treatment specifically for children of working-class families. They adopted the WSPU motto, “Deeds not words”, and allowed female doctors to gain clinical experience in paediatrics, which they could not receive anywhere else.
When the First World War broke out in July 1914, Louisa and Murray founded the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC), which they equipped with female staff. The couple suspected the British War Office would reject their help, so they offered their assistance to the French Red Cross instead. The French provided the women space in a Parisian hotel and appointed Murray as Médecin-en-Chef (chief physician) and Louisa as the chief surgeon.
The Women’s Hospital Corps expanded to set up another military hospital in Wimereux on the coast of the English Channel. They treated both French and British soldiers, the latter of whom were greatly surprised to find a hospital run by British women. Noting the successfulness of Murray, Louisa and their medical team, the British claimed it as their auxiliary hospital rather than a French one. When casualties were evacuated to England in January 1915, the War Office invited Murray and Anderson to run a hospital in London.
Overseen by the Royal Army Medical Corps, Louisa and Murray started running the Endell Street Military Hospital (ESMH) in May 1915. Constructed in the former St Giles Union Workhouse in Covent Garden, the hospital had space for an operating theatre and most of the equipment from Wimereux Hospital, which closed following Louisa and Murray’s departure from France. Initially, the ESMH opened with enough beds for 520 men, but the number of wounded continued to grow, forcing them to squeeze in another 53 beds. Additional Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospitals were established to allow doctors and nurses to treat up to 800 wounded soldiers at a time.
The ESMH saw 50,000 patients between 1915 and 1919, with 80 soldiers arriving each day. Louisa and the other surgeons conducted around 20 operations per day. The majority of staff were women, including drivers, dentists, pathologists, doctors, surgeons and nurses. Other women came in daily as librarians and entertainment officers to boost morale among the patients, particularly those who never had visitors from family or friends. Whilst the majority of wounded soldiers were British, at least 2000 Canadians received treatment, plus a handful of Australian, New Zealand, American, Russian and French troops.
Reluctant to give the women full control of the hospital, the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) regularly checked up on the staff and patients. The RAMC was sceptical about the women’s ability to work professionally and felt they were not properly trained for the job. Louisa, Murray and the other women proved the RAMC wrong when they received positive feedback from the patients. Soldiers even commented on the “feminine touches” around the hospital, such as flowers, colour and proper lighting, which benefited their psychological health, unlike the other drab, gloomy military hospitals.
At the ESMH, Louisa worked closely with the pathologist Helen Chambers (1879-1935) to pioneer a new method of treating septic wounds. James Rutherford Morison (1853-1939), a surgeon stationed at Northumberland War Hospital, introduced BIPP (bismuth iodoform paraffin paste) to treat contaminated wounds. Louisa and Chambers tested the product on some of their patients and reported the positive results to Morison, who asked them to continue with a larger trial of BIPP throughout 1916. Louisa published her report on the product in the weekly medical journal The Lancet, in which she praised its effectiveness, both in healing the wound and limiting the patient’s pain. The antiseptic properties allowed dressings to remain on for longer, reducing the use of bandages by 80%.
In 1917, King George V founded the Order of the British Empire to honour those who served in non-combatant roles during the First World War. The Order consists of five classes: Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight/Dame Commander (KBE/DBE), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). For their work in the hospital, Louisa and Murray became one of the first people awarded a CBE in August 1917.
Louisa and Murray continued working in the ESMH hospital until the end of the war, when they received orders to evacuate and close the building by December 1919. Both women returned to the Women’s Hospital for Children in Harrow Road, renamed the Roll of Honour Hospital. While working as doctors and surgeons, Murray wrote the memoir Women as Army Surgeons: Being the History of the Women’s Hospital Corps in Paris, published in 1920. She dedicated the book to “Louisa Garrett Anderson / Bold, cautious, true and my loving companion.”
As well as celebrating the end of the war, the Suffragists and Suffragettes celebrated the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which allowed women over the age of 30 the right to vote. The NUWSS and WSPU disbanded and formed the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), which fought for the same voting rights as men, equal pay, fairer divorce laws and an end to discrimination against women in employment.
Lack of funding resulted in the closure of the Roll of Honour Hospital in around 1921, so both women decided to retire and move to a cottage in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Sadly, Murray discovered she had rectal carcinoma and died shortly after surgery to remove the tumour, with Louisa by her side. Murray left everything to Louisa in her will and was buried at the Holy Trinity Church near their home.
Following Flora Murray’s death, Louisa lost her radicalism and joined the Conservative Party. In 1934, she became a justice of the peace and later the Mayor of Aldeburgh, Suffolk. When the Second World War began, Louisa came out of retirement to work as a surgeon at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, named after her mother.
In 1943, Louisa discovered she had developed cancer, which quickly spread throughout her body. She spent her remaining days in a nursing home in Brighton, where she passed away on 15th November 1943 at the age of 70. Her brother, nephews and nieces arranged her funeral and scattered her ashes on the South Downs. They also commissioned a new headstone for Flora Murray, featuring the inscription:
To the dear love of comrades and in memory of
CBE, MD, BS Durham, DPH. Cambridge
Daughter of Com John Murray RN
Born 8 May 1869
Died 26 July 1923
She commanded the military hospital Endall Street London with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel RAMC 1915 -1919
God gave her the strength to lead, to pity and to heal
And of her friend
Louisa Garrett Anderson
CBE, MD, Chief Surgeon Women’s Hospital Corps 1914–1919
Daughter of James George Skelton Anderson and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson of Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
Born 28 July 1873
Died 15 November 1943
WE HAVE BEEN GLORIOUSLY HAPPY
Louisa Garrett Anderson is one of 55 women whose names and photographs appear on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Erected in 2018 to celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, the statue pays homage to several people who supported the suffrage campaign. Many notable Suffragettes appear on the plinth, including Emmeline, Christabel, Sylvia and Adele Pankhurst, and four men: Laurence Housman (1865-1959), George Lansbury (1859-1940), Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961) and Reverend Claude Hinscliff (1875-1964).
Flora Murray did not make it onto the shortlist of names on the Millicent Fawcett statue, but she is due to appear on the new polymer £100 Scottish banknote in May 2022. Dr Murray will feature on one side and the poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) on the other. Speaking about the decision to include Murray, the chief executive of the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust said, “Almost a century since her death, Flora’s story is a reminder of the huge debt of gratitude we owe to those early agitators who refused to accept the limitations imposed by a society that didn’t believe women could or should be doctors, physicians and surgeons. Then and now, we embrace the pioneers, the innovators, and the game-changers.”