Guy Rughani: New hospital gallery honours Britain’s first female doctor

Guy RughaniTasteful up-lighting, shiny touch screens, and slick videos are what we now expect of the modern museum. Actually, they’re not museums any more – that’s far too stuffy. They’re “galleries.”

With this in mind, London’s latest medical attraction doesn’t disappoint. The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery at UNISON’s new headquarters opened last week (Dr Anderson’s 175th birthday) to polite applause, a speech from the union’s General Secretary, and a glorious array of canapés, wine, and cheese.

The new gallery is in the former library of the “new hospital” for women, founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in 1890. Dr Anderson was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the UK, and a significant women’s rights campaigner. Inspired by Elizabeth Blackwell (America’s first female doctor), she decided to study medicine, but no medical school would admit her.  She eventually cobbled together enough private medical teaching to register in 1865 with the Society of Apothecaries.

“The old fogies were properly impressed” commented Elizabeth following her registration exam. “I do think making a decent appearance before examiners is one of the very keenest pleasures of this life.”

After obtaining an MD from Paris, marrying a wealthy steamship owner, and raising three kids, she returned to social reform. Her “new hospital’ in Bloomsbury was built in a domestic style, more home than hospital, offering poor women and children medial care. The hospital remained open until the mid-nineties, since which time it has lain derelict.

John Dangerfield, one of the architects charged with restoring the hospital, described what they found: “The building was on the point of collapse. The ward block and tower were sliding towards the main road, and there was water coming into the building.”

The architects and builders slowly recorded, dismantled, and reconstructed the original hospital, linking it to the new UNISON tower block. They covered the sandwiched courtyard with a fancy glass roof.

“There are now more women than men qualifying as doctors in the UK” said UNISON’s general secretary Dave Prentis. “That is a fitting testament to Elizabeth.”

Visit the Elizabeth Anderson gallery, UNISON Centre, 130 Euston Road, London NW1 2AY

Guy Rughani is a BMJ Clegg scholar and a third year medical student at the University of Edinburgh.

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