In 1860 she resolved to study medicine, an almost unheard-of thing for a woman at that time, and regarded by some as almost indecent. Having obtained some more or less irregular instruction at the Middlesex Hospital, London, she was refused admission as a full student both there and at many other medical schools to which she applied.
Finally she studied anatomy privately at the London Hospital, and with some of the professors at the University of St Andrews, and at the Edinburgh Extra-Mural school. She had no less difficulty in gaining a qualifying diploma to practice medicine. London University, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, and many other examining bodies refused to admit her to their examinations; but in the end the Society of Apothecaries allowed her to enter for the Licence of Apothecaries’ Hall, which she obtained in 1865. This entitled her to have her name entered on the medical register, the second woman after Elizabeth Blackwell, and the first woman qualified in Britain to do so.
In 1866 she was appointed general medical attendant to St Mary’s Dispensary, a London institution started to enable poor women to obtain medical help from qualified practitioners of their own sex. The dispensary soon developed into the New Hospital for Women, and there Dr Garrett worked for over twenty years. In 1870 she obtained the University of Paris degree of MD. The same year she was elected to the first London School Board, at the head of the poll for Marylebone, and was also made one of the visiting physicians of the East London Hospital for Children; but the duties of these two positions she found to be incompatible with her principal work, and she soon resigned them. She also built a medical school for women.
In 1873 she gained membership of the British Medical Association and remained the only woman member for 19 years, due to the Association’s vote against the admission of further women — “one of several instances where Garrett, uniquely, was able to enter a hitherto all male medical institution which subsequently moved formally to exclude any women who might seek to follow her.”
Elizabeth worked steadily at the development of the New Hospital for Women, and (from 1874) at the creation of the London School of Medicine for Women. Both institutions have since been handsomely and suitably housed and equipped, the New hospital for Women (in the Euston Road) for many years being worked entirely by medical women, and the schools (in Hunter Street, WC1) having over 200 students, most of them preparing for the medical degree of London University (the present-day University College London), which was opened to women in 1877. In 1897 Dr Garrett Anderson was elected president of the East Anglian branch of the British Medical Association.
On 9 November 1908 she was elected mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor in England.
The movement for the admission of women to the medical profession, of which Dr Anderson was the indefatigable pioneer in England, extended in her lifetime to all of North America and Europe, except for Spain and Turkey.
The New Hospital for Women was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918 and amalgamated with the Obstetric Hospital in 2001 to form the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Obstetric Hospital before relocating to become the University College Hospital Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing at UCH.
The former Elizabeth Garret Anderson Hospital buildings were incorporated into the design and structure of the National Centre for the public service trade union UNISON – many of UNISON’s members are women working in healthcare.