Anderson was a pioneering physician and political campaigner, the first Englishwoman to qualify as a doctor.
Elizabeth Garrett was born in Whitechapel, east London, one of the 12 children of a pawnbroker. During her childhood her father became a successful businessman, enabling him to send his children to good schools. After school she was expected to marry well and live the life of a lady. However meetings with the feminist Emily Davies and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman physician, convinced Elizabeth Garrett that she should become a doctor.
This was unheard of in 19th century Britain and her attempts to study at a number of medical schools were denied. She enrolled as a nursing student at Middlesex Hospital and attended classes intended for male doctors, but was barred after complaints from other students. As the Society of Apothecaries did not specifically forbid women from taking their examinations, in 1865 she passed their exams and gained a certificate which enabled her to become a doctor. The society then changed its rules to prevent other women entering the profession this way.
With her father's backing, in 1866 she established a dispensary for women in London and in 1870 was made a visiting physician to the East London Hospital. Here she met James Anderson, a successful businessman, who she married in 1871 and with whom she had three children.
She remained determined to obtain a medical degree, so she taught herself French and went to the University of Paris, where she successfully earned her degree. The British Medical Register refused to recognise her qualification.
In 1872, Anderson founded the New Hospital for Women in London (later renamed after its founder), staffed entirely by women. Anderson appointed her mentor, Elizabeth Blackwell, as the professor of gynaecology there.
Anderson's determination paved the way for other women, and in 1876 an act was passed permitting women to enter the medical professions. In 1883, Anderson was appointed dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, which she had helped to found in 1874, and oversaw its expansion.
In 1902, Anderson retired to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. In 1908, she became the mayor of the town, the first female mayor in England. She was a member of the suffragette movement and her daughter Louisa was also a prominent suffragette. Anderson herself died on 17 December 1917.