Born: January 3, 1793
Died: November 11, 1880
In 1849, Lucretia Coffin Mott spoke in front of a gathering of medical students at the Cherry Street Meeting House in Philadelphia. As a center of medical education, Philadelphia attracted students from all over the country, including the South. By speaking openly against slavery in such an environment, Mott certainly knew that her words would fall on some unsympathetic ears. Indeed, as is noted in the published transcript of the sermon, when Mott began speaking openly against slavery, “Here a few persons, irritated by this reference to the question of slavery, left the meeting.”
But this gathering was not her first tough crowd. Mott was already an established anti-slavery activist, a Quaker minister who traveled and preached extensively and, with her husband, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. In 1840, Mott attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where although she was an invited participant, she and the other women at the conference were silenced by a majority vote before the convention even started — and yet she still managed to garner the moniker, “The Lioness of the Convention.” And just a few months earlier, she joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton in organizing the Senaca Falls Convention, the country’s first women’s rights convention. So Lucretia Mott, of Nantucket, Massachusetts, already knew a bit about handling a disturbance during a public speech.
After the mini-exodus, she addressed the community by saying, “It should not be strange that the allusion to this subject should create some little agitation among you; and while I can but regret it, I stand here on behalf of the suffering and the dumb, and must express the desire, that there may be a disposition to hear and reflect, and then judge. I speak unto those who have ears to hear, who have hearts to feel. May their understandings not be closed! May they be willing to receive that which conflicts with their education, their prejudices and preconceived opinions.”
This appeal for compassionate reflection is something I strive to do in my daily work at the Church Health Center in Memphis, Tennessee. And while I have yet to inspire a general walkout, I too have spent time in front of medical students discussing some of the most difficult and controversial topics of the day. I teach a class called “Serving the Underserved” for medical students from the University of Tennessee. The optional, off-site class began two years ago as a way to encourage and support students in the midst of what can be an unyieldingly difficult course of study. Many of the students, initially drawn into medicine by a love of people and a desire to help, find themselves discouraged by the amount of study and frustrated by the patients they see. Like many of us, they grow tired of the intricacies of the hospital system and, despite their education, feel ill-equipped when faced with a complicated society that leaves many people sick and helpless.
The course gives students a chance to connect with and support each other through relevant conversation and study. We ask students to think critically about health care access, the effects of cynicism and burnout in their professions, and how we can adequately provide all this care — and still pay for it. With the health care debate raging outside our doors, the students must look forward into their own careers and think about how they will deal with crippling medical school debt, and yet remain committed to serving the most vulnerable in society. Certainly, there is disagreement, but last year more than 60 students “graduated” from our course with a stronger connection to each other, and commitment to those who are suffering in our city, and beyond.
Lucretia Mott’s challenge to the medical students of her day is still relevant today. Rather than relying on our own “prejudices and preconceived opinions,” Mott challenges us to hear, reflect, and then judge. Her commitment to the abolition of slavery and the voting rights of all people inspires us to recommit to the important issues of our day, even the ones that may be unpopular and controversial. When faced with the struggles of the suffering in our midst, Lucretia Mott challenges us to have, as she says, ears that hear and hearts that feel.