Against all odds. The inspirational tale of Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu

  • Date

    Thu 14 Dec 17

A head and shoulders photo of Dame Professor Anionwu delivering a talk at the University of Essex

If you were lucky enough to be in LTB5 on the Colchester Campus, you’d have been able to hear a pin drop as our student nurses sat in awe as Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu shared insights into her life.

Emma Hickman from our School of Health and Social Care explains why Elizabeth's talk had such a big impact on our staff and students: 

 "During the 90 minute talk, Elizabeth told her tale as if talking to old friends.  All preconceptions of a privileged and polished upbringing were thrown aside as she revealed her tough upbringing.  She was born in shame to an unmarried, white Catholic mother and an unknown Nigerian father - both of whom were studying at Cambridge University in 1946.  Her disgraced mother was whisked away in secret to a mother and baby home, away from the prying eyes of her family’s friends and neighbours.  This bookmarked the beginning of an unstable childhood spent mostly in care, and a lifetime committed to fighting inequalities.

Against all odds. The inspirational tale of Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu

"Elizabeth picked threads from the tapestry of her life to inspire the current students and to arm them with strategies to future-proof them for their careers in nursing.  Her early life, punctuated with racism and the stigma of illegitimacy, taught her courage and resilience.   She implored the students to find the positives in every situation, and to use inequality and disappointments as fuel to make change happen. 

"Pausing mid-talk, Elizabeth asked the students to reflect and focus on what made them want to nurse.  She explained the power of defining that moment or grasping the source of their inspiration, and using it as a tool for self-motivation when times get tough.  She shared that aged 4, she knew she wanted to follow in the footsteps of a kind nun (who it later transpired was also a nurse), who made the treatment of her childhood eczema bearable.  Rather than the usual torture of ripping the bandages from her tender skin, this gentle character knew the power of distraction therapy, and changed Elizabeth’s career trajectory.  

"Students heard about Elizabeth’s career defining ‘light-bulb’ moments, from reading Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, to meeting Bayard Rustin (the American civil rights activist), and then finally to learning the identity of and meeting her father, Lawrence Anionwu.  She talked off how to find the ‘fire in your belly’ and harnessing it to make change happen.  Elizabeth then went on to talk about her decision to specialise in sickle cell and thalassaemia, and her research and practice along the way.  She also touched on her work to educate the nation about the life and works of Mary Seacole, and finally on her recent Damehood in the 2017 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.

"The audience could only ponder, had Elizabeth been less resilient and less inquisitive, would sickle cell education and treatment be where it is today? From such a humble start, who would have thought Elizabeth could achieve so much?

"Elizabeth concluded her talk with sage advice for our student nurses: 'First and foremost be a good nurse.  Share your practices, and share the gaps.  Find out your facts and then don’t be afraid to challenge.  If you read something you don’t like, don’t copy it, change it'."


To find out more about Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, visit her website, or follow her on Twitter.

The School of Health and Social Care would like to thank Dr Winifred Eboh (lecturer in Adult Nursing, and BAME lead for the School) for organising this wonderful opportunity for the staff and students.