Two Mentors and an Inspiration From the Past

A doctor shares how 2 mentors and a notable artist from history inspired her.


(In honor of Women’s History Month, we invited our contributors to write about the women who inspire them. – Ed.)

History is full of inspirational women: Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Schumann, Dorothy Day, Sally Ride, Maya Angelou and Malala Yousafzai to name a few. As a young girl, I was fascinated by Amelia Earhart, the daring aviator and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. But when I was asked to write this article about a woman who inspired me, the very first person that came to mind was Hilma af Klint.

WHO? Well, she’s not a scientist, doctor, concert pianist, social activist, astronaut, author, aviator, or Nobel Peace Prize winner. She is a visionary but largely forgotten artist to whom the world has only recently awakened. Her beautiful, inquiring, radically abstract and mystical paintings were groundbreaking. While Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other male abstract painters of their day are known to many, af Klint was largely unknown, though her transformative work predated hers.

Born in Stockholm in 1862, she was one of the first women to be admitted to the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She was prolific and created more than 1300 works, many of which reflected her spiritual quest. Her abstract work went largely unrecognized until recently, when it was finally discovered and hailed as a seminal precursor to Western abstract art.1

What do I find so inspiring about af Klint? The beauty and otherworldliness of their art. Your perseverance and hard work in a field with very few women and even less recognition and reward. Her unwavering dedication to her own path and vision. your searching spirit.

Many other women artists of the past – like Alma Thomas, Frida Kahlo and Emily Kame Kngwarreye – created impressive works that were underestimated for much of their lives. Today we tend to recognize women from all walks of life as visionaries and leaders. It’s easy to forget that this is a sea change. When I was growing up, not so long ago, women’s accomplishments often went unnoticed, and female leaders were a rarity. I didn’t know then – or didn’t even know from– a single doctor. More than half of all medical students in the United States are now women. It is remarkable how much has changed for us in such a short time.

I would like to mention another woman who inspired me in a different way than af Klint. This woman has truly transformed my research career and my quest to bring Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) out of the shadows. When I was an intern at McLean Hospital and began treating patients with BDD and conducting research studies in the late 1980’s, BDD was virtually unexplored and unknown. Worst of all, we didn’t know how to treat it, although we now know that BDD is common, often debilitating, and more associated with suicidality than many other serious psychiatric disorders. Needing a mentor, I turned to Susan McElroy, MD, an accomplished bipolar disorder researcher who also researched eating disorders and kleptomania, which were then considered “mild.” This was perfect for me and BDD! When I asked her to guide the first steps of my journey, she was all in.

McElroy loves adventure, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and making life better for patients. With her usual great energy and enthusiasm, she exclaimed, “Yes! Let’s start SCIDing!” And the first systematic phenomenological study of BDD was born. She was a super smart, generous and inspirational mentor.

Speaking of mentors, I can’t end this article without mentioning one man: my dear (now deceased) mentor, John Gunderson, MD – a leading personality disorders researcher, a respected clinician, and a human being of the highest caliber. He so generously shared his knowledge and wisdom with me and countless other grateful mentees, clinicians and researchers. His inspiration lives on.

Dr Phillips is Professor of Psychiatry, DeWitt Wallace Senior Scholar and Residency Research Director in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is also an Associate Psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University Alpert Medical School.


1. About Hilma af Klint. Hilma af Klints Verk Foundation. Retrieved February 20, 2022.

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