Elizabeth Blackwell Award

Priscilla A. Schaffer, Ph.D.
April 27, 2007

Mr. President, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, students and guests: Receiving the Elizabeth Blackwell Award is a tremendous honor. I am humbled and deeply appreciate having been chosen to stand among the many accomplished women who have preceded me as recipients of this award.

Three aspects of today’s award ceremony stand out. First, the award is being given as William Smith College begins its centennial celebration. Second, the award is being given to a William Smith graduate for the first time, and third the award will recognize—also for the first time—the contribution to the Blackwell ideals of a basic scientist—a dyed-in-the-wall, card-carrying “lab rat.” As one considers each of these points, the deeper significance of today’s Blackwell Award emerges.

Having trained as a microbiologist in the ’60s, when women scientists were rare, I can only imagine what obstacles women entering the professions faced when William Smith College was founded 100 years ago. For Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849, the barriers must have seemed insurmountable. What is clear today is that a revolution has occurred in the educational and career possibilities for women. Before the 1940s, the great majority of professions were closed to women. Today, with the exception of engineering, the physical sciences and mathematics, old stereotypes no longer exist and most professions now benefit from the unique influence of women at all organizational levels—and many of these women are William Smith graduates.

As the influence of women in decision-making positions has increased, the social, economic and political aspects of society have begun to change. Although this change is well under way, additional major change is inevitable. As a biologist, I am quite curious to see what the long-term effects of more balanced numbers of men and women will be on a world that has been largely dominated by men since its inception. In all, it is fair to say that much has transpired in women’s education sine 1908.

Today the Blackwell Award is being given to a William Smith graduate. This is entirely appropriate and cause for much celebration. I must admit, though, when informed that I was to receive the Blackwell Award, I envisioned Helen Bateman Heath, former Dean of William Smith College, looking down from the great beyond with her piercing blue eyes and asking “…what in the world is Priscilla Schaffer doing now?!” Although I did spend a good deal of time in her office during my freshman year, I would like to assure Mrs. Heath that in addition to my numerous “unscheduled activities,” I managed to get an exceptionally good education when I was here.

The education I received at William Smith is the cornerstone of my life as a scientist and professor. Western Civilization was the best course I have ever taken and the humanities, as taught here in the early ’60s, gave me a personal sense of purpose as well as the strength to make changes when needed. The science courses taken here and my first experience conducting research in Lois Nellis’ lab provided the knowledge needed to pursue graduate education and the motivation that has carried me through nearly 40 years of scientific research. And I can say without hesitation that I’d do it all over again if I had the chance. So having been given every opportunity to succeed in my chose profession I am both grateful and proud to be here today as a graduate of William Smith College.

The professions of most previous recipients of the Blackwell Award have quite logically been focused on the human condition and include physicians, statesmen, educators, anthropologists and others. For the first time in its 50-year history, the Blackwell Award is acknowledging the work of a basic scientist, an individual whose focus is on a specific aspect of the natural world and not primarily on the human species.

To recognize the tremendous benefits that basic science can provide is highly appropriate as the very future of our planet now depends on the ability of science to solve such problems as air and water pollution, resistance of infectious agents to antimicrobial drugs and alternative sources of energy. In order to implement the solutions that basic science provides and to ensure the long-term survival of the planet and the many species that call earth home, we must also have educated individuals who understand life on earth in the context of science, individuals who are willing to make difficult decisions to save the planet—including the decision to control our own numbers. I consider myself fortunate to have received such an education at William Smith and therefore feel honored to paraphrase Elizabeth Blackwell’s own words, as engraved on her statue here on campus:

I cannot but congratulate myself on having found … the right place for my beginning.

To the students it is my sincere with that each of you find the personal satisfaction that I found as a consequence of my education at William Smith College.

Thank you all for an unforgettable day.