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Dr. Tenley E. Albright





Year of Birth / Death

b. 1935


Medical School

Harvard Medical School


Geography

LOCATION
Massachusetts


Career Path

Surgery
Dr. Tenley E. Albright



Inspiration

I remember first of all, when I was about three years old, being taken on rounds with my father on a Sunday morning. But it wasn't rounds. I was left at the cigar stand at the front entrance of the hospital in the lobby. And those telephone operators let me put in the buttons in the old-fashioned telephone switchboard. And I loved going with him.

But when I had my tonsils out, I became fascinated with hospitals, although I didn't like having my tonsils out. More and more, I began to be interested in what doctors did, what hospitals were. I liked to take care of my dolls. I always wanted to fix things. I always wanted to help when my friends got scraped, I wanted to see how I could make it feel better. Gradually and gradually, I became more interested—and particularly when I had polio, when I was about ten.



Biography

Dr. Tenley Albright achieved early success and fame as an athlete before pursuing a career in medicine, and she has built a career that incorporates both of these interests. One of only 5 women in a class of 135 at Harvard Medical School in 1957, 22 years later Dr. Albright was the first woman to serve as an officer on the United States Olympic Committee.

Tenley Emma Albright grew up in Massachusetts, the daughter of a prominent surgeon. From an early age she had two ambitions, to be a doctor and to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. When she was 9 years old, she started skating skating. But her love of the sport met a serious obstacle when, at age 10, she was diagnosed with polio. "At that time, no one knew what polio was, or what caused it, or what to do for it. So I was put in the hospital, and to make the diagnosis... it was done with a so-called lumbar puncture," a painful procedure that can be very frightening for a child.

Albright was hospitalized and had to remain inactive for several months. She could not move her leg, back or neck. When she left the hospital in 1946, she returned to the ice and four months after coming home from the hospital she won her first skating title. In 1952, at the age of 16, Albright won the first of five consecutive U.S. women's singles titles in figure skating, and in the same year she won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway.

In 1953, Albright entered Radcliffe College to major in pre-medical studies. A highly disciplined student, she practiced skating from 4 to 6 a.m. daily, while managing to fit in classes, homework, studying, and ballet. In 1955 she took a leave of absence to win her second world championship. She left Radcliffe after three years of study, in 1956.

That same year, Albright became the first American woman to earn a gold medal in figure skating, in the Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy. In 1957 she returned to her studies and entered Harvard Medical School, one of only five women in a class of 135. She remembers, "...there weren't a lot of women's faces, and there weren't a lot of women to teach us, either." Despite the difficulties and the lack of role models, Albright enjoyed her training and graduated in 1961.

Dr. Albright has three grown daughters and lives in Brookline, MA with her husband, Gerald Blakeley. Dr. Albright practices general surgery in Boston, and is currently a consultant to the National Library of Medicine's Board of Regents, which she previously chaired.

She has received numerous awards and honors and in 1988 was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Association's Hall of Fame.



Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

No one ever said, "Well, you're silly to want to be a doctor." Maybe they didn't pay much attention, but they let me have my dream and build my vision more and more.

How do I make a difference?

When you're there in this magical world of the operating room, with a patient and with a team, and you're dealing with something, you never know totally what you're going to find until you're there. If you know yourself, if you've done everything, figured out everything, and really gone through all the thinking, it's sort of like that multidimensional thinking that I was aware of on the ice, where everything comes into your head at once. You have to be focused, but you also have to be conscious of all sorts of things, for the benefit of having the surgery turn out the way you want it to. And then there is that wonderful feeling of completing it, as you put in the last stitch, knowing that you did it the way you wanted to.

What I found was that I spent 23 years in the private practice of surgery, and I began doing one-on-one, and I love, and still do, the idea of what you can do to make it particularly good for a particular patient; make the convalescence easier; create less pain by position—all sorts of little things that it's just sort of a satisfaction knowing that you can do to help.

When I think of making a difference, the first thing that comes to mind is making a difference one by one. Doing whatever I can to make a difference in one life, or one part of one life, and that motivates me to want to do that more. And anything I can do to make a bigger change—whether it's helping to change attitudes, or ways of doing things, or just to encourage all of us to have sort of a sense of openness—that's really what I'd like to do.

Who was my mentor?

When I came to Harvard Medical School, there were 5 of us women in a class of 135. Now, this year our Harvard Medical School admissions are 56 percent women. So... "changing the face of medicine" is really true. And there weren't a lot of women's faces, and there weren't a lot of women to teach us, either.

In fact, I have to say that when I look back at my mentors, my mentors in medicine and surgery were really men. And now, it is so different. And it's so exciting to be in the midst and realize that it's not even a issue anymore.

Then there was a mentor, a neurosurgeon that I knew through skating, and he was the one I asked, "Do you have to finish college to go to medical school?" And he looked it up for me and found, "No, it says you have to have pre-med, but nowhere does it say you have to have a college degree." So that was why I applied to Harvard Medical School after three years [at Radcliffe], because I was so anxious to get on to medicine.

In medical school it was mostly the men, and the men who taught surgery that I considered mentors, and it was so wonderful to find that there were women. There was a woman physician whom I didn't know but heard a lot about—Sarah Jordan. She was at the Lehigh Clinic, and was a gastroenterologist famous for identifying things like the importance of drinking eight glasses of water a day... I thought that was fascinating, to find something that would be of use to everybody. There were people like that, who were with us here at medical school.

How has my career evolved over time?

I never thought I'd go into surgery. I know I loved medicine and wanted to be a doctor, but I thought I would go into pediatrics, because that seemed like a real natural to me. And then when I was here at medical school, I found the new things happening with the biology of psychiatry extremely interesting.

It wasn't until the end of second year that I was beginning to admit to myself, "I really like these sorts of surgical courses." The first time I was in the operating room as a medical student, I was positioned behind the surgeon with one hand on the retractor on one side of him and one on the other, and I couldn't even see the incision, and I thought, "I'll never come in an operating room again!" But the next time I at least could see the incision and put in a little stitch.

So I was surprised to admit to myself that I liked surgery so much. And then I told my father; and he was interested in that. He was a surgeon, but had never said, "Well, consider that." And then finally, it was a great relief to say all right! I can make that choice, and go on with it.



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VIDEO 1

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