Taking the offensive: General George Patton and … Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

by | 4 Jan 2011 | Leaders from History


Taking the Offensive is one of the leadership and business skills that draws most heavily on comparison with military strategy. One of the greatest proponents of offensive strategy in recent military history, for example, was the American General, George S. Patton. Patton had fought in the First World War (in the new United States Tank Corps) and had developed a visceral hatred of trench warfare—of digging in, holding ground, and launching occasional bloody offensives against heavily defended positions. Digging in was what got you killed; keeping on the move, surprising the enemy, catching them off guard—this was what won battles and wars.

Attack and attack and attack some more

Patton led one of the most rapid military advances in history as he drove US Third Army out of the beachhead in Normandy established by the D-Day landings, across France and towards Germany.  ‘Nobody ever defended anything successfully,’ said Patton, ‘there is only attack and attack and attack some more.’ He also said: ‘Attack rapidly, ruthlessly, viciously, without rest—however tired and hungry you may be, the enemy will be more tired, more hungry.’

It’s a very sound strategy and it does not apply only to warfare. Amusingly, one of the most brilliant examples of ‘taking the offensive’ in everyday life, as opposed to on the battlefield, was a young, middle-class Victorian lady called Elizabeth Garret Anderson, who wanted to study medicine. A simple enough ambition, and a noble one. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, the whole of the (exclusively male) Victorian establishment would try to frustrate her every attempt to gain a qualification. Elizabeth, however, took the battle to the establishment.

How should the fair intruder be received?

Resolved to become a doctor, Elizabeth started out as a nurse at London’s Middlesex Hospital in 1860. Becasue of her keen interest, her cool head and her strong stomach, surgeons began to invite her to follow them on their rounds. She began to attend lectures but was not allowed to pay her fees, as this would recognise that she was a bona fide student which was, of course, impossible: medical schools did not accept women students. After a revolt by the hospital’s (male) medical students against Elizabeth’s apparently disturbing presence at lectures, she was turned away—but with glowing references.

As Elizabeth began to piece a medical education together by various unorthodox and unprecedented routes, the alarm of the establishment began to mount. The voice of the medical establishment of the time is heard most clearly—and most patronisingly—in the editorials of The Lancet, the British medical journal founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakely. Thomas’s son, James Wakely, who became editor of the The Lancet in his turn, wrote several editorials about the growing furore surrounding Elizabeth’s dogged progression towards becoming a doctor.

Beneath such side-splitting headlines as ‘How should the fair intruder be received?’, Wakely set out an array of arguments calculated to persuade his fellow male professionals that their prejudices were quite correct and that women—quite frankly, but in the nicest possible sense—were not up to the job.

The mental, moral, and emotional characteristics of the female organisation

One contemporary argument in favour of women doctors was that women might prefer to be attended by a female doctor during child-birth. Not so, apparently:  ‘From an extended experience we are convinced that the mothers of England prefer to be attended in their labours by medical men, and that, in fact, the idea of female medical attendants is positively repulsive to the more thoughtful women of this country. Judging from the mental, moral, and emotional characteristics of the female organisation we should say that women are not well fitted to regard calmly and philosophically the pains and agonies of their sisters, nor are they constituted to battle seriously and determinedly with many of the dangerous and alarming accidents of parturition, which always require prompt and vigorous action’.

By the ‘female organisation’ the writer means ‘the female mind and body’.  Women (despite their role as midwives over the several millennia of human history) were now seen to be poorly equipped for the task. They would become too emotional when witnessing the ‘pains and agonies of their sisters’.  When ‘prompt and vigorous action’ was required, they would—sadly—be found wanting.

Wakely reveals more about the sexual politics of the day when he gets to the heart of the matter: medicine and surgery is not the sort of thing that women should be trying to take on at all, not only because they are unsuited to these skills but because they have other tasks to which, in contrast, they are entirely and biologically suited—the most important of which (strange as it may seem) is to look after men.

Why women must never take a leading role . . .

‘In the economy of nature . . . the ministry of women is one of help and sympathy. The essential principle, the key-note of her work in the world, is aid; to sustain, succour, revive and even sometimes shelter man in the struggle and duty of life, is her peculiar function. The moment she affects the first or leading role in any vocation she is out of place, and the secondary, but essential, part of helpmate cannot be filled.’

And, with a final banging of sexist nails into the coffin of a moribund argument, Wakely has this to say: women probably could do all of this manly stuff, as he grudgingly admits—but at what cost?

‘It cannot be doubted that it is possible to make women more man-like, but it is not possible to produce in them the characteristics of man without destroying many of their feminine attractions and possibly also their feminine functions’.

Too much ‘unnatural’ effort by a woman (too much intellectual strain, for example) would affect not only her health, but her fertility. The affect on her attractiveness was, of course, unavoidable.

Catch 22: Rule 1 – All women doctors must have a recognised qualification; Rule 2 – No women can be accepted as medical students

Elizabeth got permission to sit examinations for a medical degree with the Society of Apothecaries—the only examining body whose charter did not disbar women and which could offer a qualification that would allow Elizabeth to have her name entered on the medical register. No medical school would accept Elizabeth as a student, and so she was forced to assemble her education piecemeal, attending the lectures of well-disposed professors, gaining clinical experience by working in hospitals and persuading a young orthopaedic surgeon to give her the essential training in practical anatomy. When Elizabeth was finally ready to sit her examinations, the Society, afraid that the medical profession would take them to task for allowing a woman to graduate, refused suddenly to examine her. Elizabeth’s father threatened legal action, and they backed down. As soon as Elizabeth had sat and passed her examination, the Society changed its charter so that all future candidates would be required to attend medical school—which, of course, women were unable to do.

First doctor, first MD, first woman mayor

Elizabeth set up practice off London’s Edgeware Road and later founded the St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children. She became the first woman to receive her MD (from Paris University) and helped to found the London Medical College for Women. She was elected to the first London School Board and, as a final flourish, became Britain’s first woman mayor, of Aldeburgh.

Elizabeth Garret Anderson and George S. Patton both feature in History Lessons, an exploration of the great leaders from history.

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