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On June 6 and 7, The University of Chicago celebrated the 60th anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s U.S. visit with a concert and symposium (read more here and here). One of the panelists at that symposium was Olufunmilayo (Funmi) Olopade, MD, who directs a multidisciplinary clinical and laboratory research program in cancer genetics at the University of Chicago Medical Center. As a hematologist/oncologist, she specializes in the treatment of aggressive breast cancer that disproportionately affects young women.

In her convocation speech to the University of Chicago’s graduating class this past weekend, Olopade — who came to America after graduating from the medical school at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria — said:

While training in medical school prepared me to take care of the sick, it was experiences outside the classroom that informed my decision to devote my career to eliminating global disparities in both opportunities and health outcomes.

Indeed, traditional medical education–while undoubtedly valuable–does not focus on the health needs of underserved populations or the elimination of health disparities. According to the journal Academic Medicine, even though teaching hospitals “bring students face-to face with poor and uninsured patients on a regular basis . . . an overview of the research available suggests that this contact does not result in students’ greater understanding and empathy for the plight of the poor and may, in fact, lead to an erosion of positive attitudes toward the poor.”

ASF’s programs, by contrast, kindle and support health professional students’ desire to serve populations in need—and give them the tools to make sustained commitment to the underserved a driving force in their careers, as it has been in Olopade’s.

Later in Olopade’s convocation speech, she spoke specifically about Schweitzer:

Now that you have acquired the best education money can buy, what will you do with your knowledge? Last weekend was the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s only visit to the United States, during which he received an honorary degree at the University of Chicago from President Robert Hutchins. The son of a Lutheran pastor, Schweitzer was born in Alsace, a small village, then part of Germany. By age 29, he had already authored three books and made landmark scholarly contributions in the fields of music, religion, and philosophy. He was an acclaimed organist, a world authority on Bach, a church pastor, a principal of a theological seminary, and a university professor with two doctoral degrees. At the age of 30, aware of the desperate needs of Africans, he decided to become a doctor and devoted the rest of his life to direct service in Africa. Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952. He spoke out against nuclear testing in the now legendary paper “A Declaration of Conscience” at the urging of Norman Cousins using materials from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published at the University of Chicago. For going against conventional wisdom, this is what Schweitzer said: “One thing I know: the ones among you who will truly be happy are those who have sought and found a way to serve.” My father grew up poor in a small village in Nigeria. It was a missionary like Albert Schweitzer who identified the genius in him and gave him a good education. Needless to say, his children and grandchildren will never live in poverty again.

Olopade’s words were incredibly inspiring, and she’s catalyzed unbelievable progress in the global women’s health arena. But a new report from the Guttmacher Institute and the Women’s Health and Research Action Centre in Benin City, Nigeria is a reminder that there’s a long way to go when it comes to maternal health in Nigeria.

The report found that despite government action to combat Nigeria’s high mortality rate for women during pregnancy or childbirth, that rate (1,100 women dying during pregnancy or childbirth for every 100,000 live births) remains one of the world’s highest.

Click here for more info.

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