The Key to Overcoming Challenges: Just Do It


‘Let me into medical school and I’ll prove you’ll never be sorry’

Barbara Barlow was entering ninth grade when she learned an important lesson in life.

She was starting Country Day School on scholarship near her home in Lancaster, Pa. The headmaster called her in for a chat.

“I know you were a straight-A student in public school but (all the other) girls have been here since first grade,” he said. “So you won’t be able to be more than a C student, because you just haven’t had the education that they’ve had for the past nine years.”

She told herself that there was no way she was going to be a C student. And so she plunged into school work, sometimes staying up all night to study. She graduated first in her class.

Her father died when she was 16 and her strong and determined mother encouraged her to go after scholarships. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. To support young Barbara and her sister, her mother returned to school and became a guidance counselor and professor of psychology.

Dr. Barlow applied to five prestigious colleges—and received scholarship offers from all of them.

Getting into medical school would prove a greater challenge. She hadn’t taken advanced math and science courses while studying psychology at Vassar and her MedCAT scores were low. So she appealed directly to the doctor who interviewed her, explaining her lack of coursework.

“Let me into medical school and I’ll prove you’ll never be sorry,” she said.

Dr. Barlow was admitted to Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. As one of five women in a class of 110 students, she quickly realized she would have to overcome her shyness.

“You just really had to stand up for yourself. You couldn’t be shy and retiring. It just doesn’t work,” she recalled. “I told myself to make the shift. And I did it. It’s very weird. But I did it. And then I wasn’t shy anymore.”

Dr. Barlow became the first woman to train in pediatric surgery at Babies Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, now Babies’ and Children’s Hospital of New York. She also founded the Injury Free Coalition for Kids and is the recipient of the Alma Dea Morani Award from the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine, now Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation.

That journey, too, began by just stepping up and doing it, Dr. Barlow recalled.

“The first case that I scrubbed on, there was one female surgeon. And she said: ‘Close the abdomen.’ And I said: ‘But I have never done this.’ She said: ‘Do you sew?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ She said: ‘Close the abdomen.’ And I did. And from there it was a done deal. I mean, I loved it!”

This story is taken from the oral history of Barbara Barlow, M.D., FACS. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine.

Alicia Lazzaro