It’s just a few steps east of Euston station, so you may have rushed past an imposing corner building without necessarily knowing its absorbing – and important – history.
This scrubbed-up red-brick Victorian pile was ground-breaking in its day: the first hospital in which women were treated only by women. Built as the New Hospital For Women in 1890, it was also the brainchild of the first ever female doctor in Britain; glance up and you can still see Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s name etched on the brickwork.
The entrance is a little corporate – it’s now part of the UK’s largest trade union, the Unison centre – but don’t let that put you off. Step inside the atrium and you’ll see that the gallery, on the left, open to all. It tells the story of Garrett Anderson’s struggle set in the context of 19th and 20th century social and political history.
Born in 1836, not only was she the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon, but also the first dean of a medical school, the first woman to be elected to a school board and, as Mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor and magistrate.
But Garrett Anderson’s ultimate dream was to create a hospital. And this is the tale succinctly told in the two large exhibition rooms, restored to their late Victorian grandeur, all fireplaces, polished parquet floors and big windows.
You enter into what was originally the Medical Institute, a symbol of her ambition, a club room where her wish was for women doctors to meet and read or discuss the latest journals.
With this in mind, one quiet corner of the room has been recreated with shelves packed with books by and about medical women and social reformers: visitors are encouraged to relax on chairs around a low table and learn or even research more about the topics. In this area is also a glass case of artefacts – including a black lacquered writing box thought to be owned by the doctor herself – to ponder.
Using a variety of media – from words and photos to projections and video – the rest of the permanent interactive exhibition brings to life her story and the work of the hospital’s doctors, nurses and patients.
You’ll discover how a spontaneous meeting with a Dr Elizabeth Blackwell in 1859, age 23, inspired Garrett Anderson to pursue a career in medicine and, against the odds, qualify in Britain. You’ll also find out how the medical establishment tried to block her at every turn – and yet she still managed to finish her qualifications by 1865.
Most fascinating is that the whole project, with its stylish interior design, was “very much a woman’s ideal of a hospital”, with Garrett Anderson’s sister commissioned to decorate the rooms, painted in “delicate” colours and hung with Italian plaster reliefs depicting women and children. She also designed the prominent fireplace.
Beyond this room is the original entrance hall to the hospital, restored to its original 1890 appearance, with chess-board tiles, burgundy panelling and globe lights. It’s a space to stop and think: after all, Garrett Anderson considered it highly important that visitors should be impressed, and reassured, as they entered the hospital.
Something that’s more than apparent within such atmospheric confines.