Inspiration is the best kind of medicine

14th January 2005 at 00:00
How do we motivate pupils to pursue their dreams? Role models are important, but hard to find. Changing the Face of Medicine, an inspirational exhibition at the US National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, provides a wealth of material for inspiring all pupils - and not just those who want to go into medicine. If you or your students don't get a chance to visit the States (whatever happened to school trips?), there is a wonderful website ( changingthefaceofmedicine).

There you will discover, for example, that Tenley Albright battled polio as a child yet won a gold medal in figure skating at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy. She went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School and to enjoy a career as a general surgeon. Her gold medal and skating boots form part of the exhibition, and her story is one of more than 300 compelling biographies of women physicians who, as the title of the exhibition indicates, have transformed medical practice in the United States.

Each story focuses on the determination and dedication of individuals who have overcome the most profound obstacles: Elizabeth Blackwell (pictured above) was admitted to Geneva Medical College in New York as a "joke" in 1847, yet she defied an outraged all-male faculty to become the first woman to obtain an MD in the US; May Edward Chinn, an accomplished musician who played piano for Paul Robeson in her spare time, became the first African-American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, New York (in 1926); Helen Taussig lost her hearing in her twenties but went on to pioneer (with Alfred Blalock, in 1944) life-saving heart surgery for "blue babies"; Barbara Ross-Lee, who grew up in a Detroit housing project with her famous sister, Diana Ross, became in 1993 the first African-American woman to be appointed dean of an American medical school.

Then there is Katharine Flores, the daughter of Mexican migrant workers, who, after graduating from medical school, founded two programmes to encourage disadvantaged students to pursue medicine. Another daughter of Mexican immigrants, Nancy Jasso, chief of dermatology at the Kaiser Permanente health centre in Los Angeles, helped set up a tattoo-removal project that enables former gang members to change their lives.

Other inspirational stories tell of flight surgeons, medical correspondents, forensic pathologists, and the only female orthopaedic surgeon to work for an NFL American football team. Visitors, to either the exhibition itself or its website, can become participants by telling the story of a woman physician who has helped or inspired them or their community. The exhibition will tour the United States after its 18-month run in Bethesda.

So why don't we do something similar in the UK? All teachers need role models and personal stories like these at their fingertips; they are important in motivating pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds as they provide concrete evidence of the power of tenacity.

In the absence of a UK equivalent, Changing the Face of Medicine is a must-see - whether at first hand or via the internet - for any girl dreaming of a future in medicine or, indeed, any profession.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals in London. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press, pound;12.99). Email:

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