In 1956 Tenley Albright became the first US woman to win Olympic gold in figure skating. The Winter Games in Cortina, Italy, were the first to be televised and Albright, 20, was welcomed home as America’s sweetheart. The feat was all the more remarkable because Albright, who learned to skate in her Newton backyard, had overcome childhood polio to master her sport.
After the games, Albright turned down lucrative offers for a skating career to attend Harvard Medical School — one of five women in a class of 135 — and became a successful surgeon like her father.
Today, at 80, Albright is director of MIT Collaborative Initiatives, a nonprofit she founded 10 years ago to tackle public policy issues with a focus on health and medicine. On Oct. 3, she will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848.
Albright says she’s been called “an incorrigible optimist” and that glass-half-full
attitude has seen her through a crippling disease to the pinnacle of competitive sports. But it’s also clear that her life and career have been marked by a willingness to embrace creative solutions to complex challenges.
Albright decided on a career in medicine as she herself was healing, from polio. She was 11 when she was diagnosed with a dread disease with no cure. “At that time, no one knew what polio was, or what caused it, or what to do for it,” she says. For months, she could not move her right leg, her back, or her neck.
She recalls the first time she went back to the public rink after leaving the hospital. “I remember hanging on to the barrier, sort of creeping along it, and staying down at one end,” she says.
Albright was lucky. She recovered and began winning skating competitions, including five straight national titles, two North American championships, two world titles, and a silver medal at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo.
In 1953, she entered Radcliffe to study pre-med, but continued to skate from 4 to 6 a.m. each day, and continued to win titles. In 1956, she left school for the Olympics in Italy.
“I’m a drop out,” she says with a laugh.
After the Olympics, she consulted a doctor she knew, and asked whether she needed a college diploma to get into medical school. “He checked and came back and said, ‘I’ve looked at everything I can find and there is nowhere in writing that says you have to graduate from college. You do have to have your pre-med classes.” Which she did.
She applied to Harvard and “seven interviews later, I was accepted.” She entered in fall 1957.
Initially, she thought she’d focus on pediatrics. To her surprise, she fell in love with surgery, and sees a connection between it and skating.
“One thing is time planning, and another is knowing you can do more than you think you can,” says Albright. “We call it a surgical conscience. Nobody knows how well you’ve prepared and planned, but you know, and that’s the satisfaction. It’s true in skating, too, that you learn to expect the unexpected.”
Albright practiced surgery at the New England Baptist Hospital and New England Deaconess Hospital. She and her former husband, lawyer Tudor Gardiner, raised three daughters, including Elin Schran, who is a skating choreographer and coach. The couple divorced, and in 1981, Albright married real-estate developer Gerald Blakeley.
While Albright doesn’t skate as much as she would like, she joined other world champions to perform in Atlantic City in 2013. “They called me a week before, because someone had dropped out,” Albright says. “I told them I would do it if I could fit into the dress. We had a wonderful time.”
It was the first time she had ever skated in a long evening gown. “I wasn’t doing double axels,” she says. “I still dream about skating. I loved it.”
Her other love is medicine, and when she retired from surgery, she found she wanted to help “more than one person at a time.” In 2005, she started MIT Collaborative Initiatives, in which she brings together experts from a broad range of fields to focus on a societal problem. Albright credits her own “impatience” for the initiative.
“I want to see things solved faster,” she says. “I always feel when we have a problem, certainly in medicine and science, very often even the experts reach a certain point where things don’t move ahead.” She believed if she could assemble leaders from different fields, including architects and engineers, they might add some new perspective to complex social issues.
On the ice, she employed a similar strategy. “I always used to think how can I add to my skating? So I took dance classes. That’s still my philosophy: Can I learn more from people in totally different fields when we’re trying to solve something?”
The Initiatives have worked on projects that include mental health in the military, childhood obesity, and strokes. For each collaborative venture, the group gathers leaders from the health industry, academia, and government.
For instance, to combat childhood obesity, the group recommended developing a national strategy that will ensure all Americans have easy access to healthy, affordable food options. Specifically, they advocated the creation of “foodsheds,” similar to the concept of watersheds, where the majority of food for a region would be produced within that region.
Their big project now is clinical drug trials. “They take so long, and they’re so expensive, and there’s such a complicated application process,” Albright says. “And the patients need their medicine in a more timely fashion.”
A few years ago, some of the panels suggested to Albright that she needed to train a new generation of leaders to become change agents. In 2013, the Albright Challenge was born.
In November, the third group of 20 Albright Challenge rising leaders will arrive at MIT and be given a specific challenge to solve, while mixing with established experts for five days. Advisers include Michael Bloomberg, billionaire businessman and philanthropist and former mayor of New York, and Patricia Horoho, the first woman appointed the Army’s surgeon general.
Jean Kilbourne, another one of this year’s 10 Hall of Fame honorees, is also from the Boston area, and is credited for her ground-breaking work on the image of women in advertising, and her critical studies of tobacco and alcohol advertising.
All the women, chosen by a national panel of judges, are being celebrated for significant contributions to society, said Jill Tietjen, CEO of the Hall of Fame. “They’re very, very active, involved, concerned, passionate women,” she said.
Albright, who continues to lecture at Harvard Medical School, has a two-page resume full of various honors and board appointments, from working with the National Institutes of Health to being a member of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
At the end, there is this single line: “Earlier, she was a Gold Medal Olympic Figure Skater.”