Strictly star Nicola Adams pays tribute to Prof Dame Elizabeth Anionwu as she marks Black History Month

Strictly star Nicola Adams pays tribute to Prof Dame Elizabeth Anionwu as she marks Black History Month

October 2, 2020

WE are celebrating the start of Black History Month this week by asking leading figures to tell us about their own heroes from the past.

The annual event celebrates the contribution and achievements of black figures in British life.

Here, Olympic gold medallist boxer Nicola Adams tells how Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu inspired her

'I HAD never heard of Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu until last year and I was blown away by her achievements and her story.

She was the first person who recognised that members of the black community were disproportionately suffering from the blood disorder sickle cell anaemia and, as a nurse, she was determined to do something about it.

In the 1970s, people of colour weren’t treated very well.

So when they started showing symptoms of sickle cell, they were often dismissed as drug addicts.

Dame Elizabeth realised how little research had been done into the condition and she made it her mission to change that.

She became Britain’s first sickle cell and thalassaemia nurse specialist in 1979 and went on to open the country’s first specialist counselling centre in Brent, North West London, bringing better treatment and support to thousands.

Today she is patron of the Sickle Cell Society and an honorary adviser to the chief nursing officer for England’s Black And Minority Strategic Advisory Group.

I heard about Dame Elizabeth’s life at an awards ceremony and sadly, because I was presenting another award, our paths didn’t cross.

I’ve since listened to her being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and hearing about her challenging upbringing makes her achievements even more incredible.

Her Irish mother fell pregnant while studying at Cambridge University and chose to have her daughter mostly raised at a Catholic convent.

As a mixed-race woman who didn’t meet her father until later on, Dame Elizabeth grew up not knowing anyone who had the same colour skin as her.

In her twenties, while working in France, she confided in a midwife that she used to wash her face ten times a day to try to become white.

The midwife recommended she read the book Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon. It was only then she realised she didn’t know anything about her Nigerian heritage, and she was determined to get involved in the black community and their health issues on her return to the UK.

Dame Elizabeth was a pioneer for change and for women, and I like to hope my own journey has followed hers, although in a different arena.

We both became firsts in our chosen careers.

Black History Month is about celebrating people who have brought about change, and often struggled against discrimination to do so.

It’s about educating people about the contribution of black people and our place in history, and giving younger generations figures to aspire to.

I feel this is really lacking from the school curriculum. I certainly didn’t learn about what people of colour — and especially women of colour — in Britain have achieved.

It has been neglected for so long and it is only gradually that we are now recognising the importance of focusing on people of colour in our history.

Dame Elizabeth was a lead campaigner in bringing about the first statue of a woman of colour in the UK, that of Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse who cared for wounded Brits in the Crimean War.

She took her granddaughter to see it and the little girl was amazed to see a statue of someone who looked like her.'

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