Anna Kingsford (née Bonus) was a doctor, writer, mystic, and women’s rights activist. Born on September 15 1846 in Stratford, her father, a wealthy London shipbroker, died when she was young and left her a large endowment which gave her the kind of financial autonomy many women at the time were not used to. She decided the conditions of her marriage when she married Algernon Kingsford in 1867, and though an Anglican clergyman, he accepted her conversion to Catholicism in the 1870s. Anna’s autonomy and her husband’s acceptance of it, broke socio-cultural standards.
Anna Kingsford was a passionate supporter for women’s rights. In the 1860s, she campaigned on issues regarding married women’s property, and wrote pamphlets arguing for female suffrage. In her public talks, she was an advocate for gender equality in education and allowing women to train as doctors.
In 1872 she took over Lady’s Own Paper, where she published pieces on women’s rights and criticised animal cruelty. In the 1870s, Kingsford decided to train as a medical doctor. Although women were not allowed to qualify as doctors, she was still able to begin her studies in 1873, and moved to the Faculté de Médecine in Paris to continue her studies.
In the face of widespread opposition, she qualified as a doctor in 1880, coming second in her class. She was one of the first female British doctors and opened a practice in London. Her thesis, titled ‘The perfect way to diet’, encouraged vegetarianism and was published in 1881. In addition to being a vegetarian, Kingsford was strongly opposed to vivisection – the dissection of live animals for scientific research. While training to be a doctor, she refused to perform vivisection but was surrounded by the bloody sights, sounds and smells of the practice. In the 19th century, animals were cut apart without anaesthetic, and Kingsford described the screams of dismembered animals echoing through the faculty. During her studies, animals were baked alive to study body heat and others left mutilated overnight, their shrieking keeping the neighbourhood awake. She volunteered herself for dissection in exchange for leaving the animals alone, and allegedly tried to curse doctors who committed particularly cruel experiments.
Kingsford’s attempts to curse her colleagues stemmed from her interest in spiritualism. She was a prominent mystic and theosophist, and a firm believer in reincarnation. As a child she claimed to be in communication with fairies and in adulthood she experienced mystical visions. She was an avid reader, interested in classical mythology, astrology, esoteric Christianity and Gnosticism. She moved in occult circles, was head of the Hermetic Society, and wrote “The Perfect Way”, a well-regarded book with Edward Maitland which explored the deep mysteries of religion.
Throughout the rest of her life she continued to balance medical practice, exploring spiritualism and campaigning through writing and lecturing. She fought until the end, contracting pneumonia in the rain while campaigning against vivisection in Paris. She died of consumption in 1888.
Image: Anna Kingsford, Courtesy of Newham Archives