Two Mentors and an Inspiration From the Past

One doctor shares how 2 mentors and a notable artist from history have inspired her.

WOMEN WHO INSPIRE

(In honor of Women’s History Month, we invited our contributors to write about the women who inspire them.—Ed.)

History is brimming with inspiring women: Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Schumann, Dorothy Day, Sally Ride, Maya Angelou, and Malala Yousafzai, to name just a few. As a young girl, I was enthralled by Amelia Earhart, the daring aviator and first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. But when I was asked to write this piece about a woman who inspired me, the very first person who popped into my head was Hilma af Klint.

Who? Well, she’s not a scientist, physician, concert pianist, social activist, astronaut, author, aviator, or Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She is a visionary, yet largely forgotten, artist to whom the world has only recently awakened. Her gorgeous, searching, radically abstract and mystical paintings were pioneering. While Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other male abstract painters of her time are familiar to many, af Klint has been largely unknown, even though her transformative work predated theirs.

Born in Stockholm in 1862, she was one of the first women to be admitted to the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She was prolific, creating more than 1300 works, many of which reflected her spiritual searching. Her abstract work remained largely unrecognized until recently, when it was finally discovered and hailed as a groundbreaking precursor to abstract Western art.1

What do I find so inspiring about af Klint? Her art’s beauty and otherworldliness. Her persistence and hard work in a field with very few women, and with even less recognition and reward. Her unwavering dedication to her own path and vision. Her searching spirit.

Many other women artists from the past—such as Alma Thomas, Frida Kahlo, and Emily Kame Kngwarreye—created awe-inspiring work that was underrecognized during much of their lifetimes. These days, we are more likely to recognize women, from all walks of life, as visionaries and leaders. It’s easy to forget that this is a sea change. When I was growing up, not so long ago, women’s accomplishments often went unnoticed, and women leaders were a rarity. Back then, I didn’t know—or even know of—a single woman physician. Now, more than half of all US medical students are women. It’s remarkable how much has changed for us in so little time.

I want to mention another woman who inspired me, in a different way than af Klint. This woman made a real difference in my research career and my quest to bring body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) out of the shadows. When I was a resident at McLean Hospital and I started treating patients with BDD and doing research studies in the late 1980s, BDD was virtually unstudied and unknown. Worst of all, we didn’t know how to treat it, even though we now know that BDD is common, often debilitating, and more strongly associated with suicidality than many other severe psychiatric disorders. Needing a mentor, I approached Susan McElroy, MD, an accomplished bipolar disorder researcher who also studied eating disorders and kleptomania, which at that time were considered “fringy.” This was perfect for me and BDD! When I asked her to guide the early steps of my journey, she was all-in.

McElroy loves an adventure, pushing boundaries of knowledge, and making life better for patients. With her usual great energy and enthusiasm, she exclaimed, “Yes! Let’s start SCIDing!” And the first systematic phenomenology study of BDD was born. She was a super-smart, generous, and inspiring mentor.

Speaking of mentors, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning a man: my dear (now deceased) mentor John Gunderson, MD—a leading personality disorder researcher, an esteemed clinician, and a human being of the highest caliber. He so generously shared his knowledge and wisdom with me and countless other grateful mentees, clinicians, and researchers. His inspiration lives on.

Dr Phillips is a professor of psychiatry, DeWitt Wallace Senior Scholar, and residency research director in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is also an attending psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an adjunct professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Reference

1. About Hilma af Klint. Hilma af Klints Verk Foundation. Accessed February 20, 2022. https://www.hilmaafklint.se/om-hilma-af-klint/

Is there a woman who inspires you? Write to us at PTeditor@mmhgroup.com for a chance to contribute to our Women Who Inspire series.