Alumni Portrait: Agnes Vessey Whitley, M.D. ’62
By Christine Boatwright
Every medical school in the United States received an application from the same young Hungarian woman in 1958.
Agnes Vessey Whitley, M.D. ’62, knew she wanted to attend medical school, but her dream only began to be realized when George T. Harrell, M.D., founding dean of the UF College of Medicine, traveled to New York City to interview the hopeful applicant.
Whitley, who was raised in Budapest, Hungary, fled her homeland at 19 with her 16-year-old sister at her parents’ urging during an October 1956 Hungarian revolution. She was attending medical school in Debrecen, Hungary when she left her home, family and everything familiar.
When the sisters arrived in New York, Whitley enrolled in Vassar College as a junior, while her sister attended boarding school on the college’s funding. After graduation, Whitley decided to continue her medical education, and the UF College of Medicine was looking for its first foreign student.
“I was graduating from Vassar after a year and half. My grades were mediocre. I had no money for tuition or living expenses, and, from my letter, it must have been obvious that my English was poor,” Whitley said.
Whitley had to borrow $9 from her roommate for travel money to meet with Harrell.
“His eyes were quick looking me over, his questions pointed, and, in five minutes, the decision was made. Florida would accept me,” she said.
With no money for tuition or housing and a poor command of the English language, Whitley made her way to Gainesville to become the College of Medicine’s first foreign student to graduate from the medical school.
“Half of the medical school class in Hungary was women. In Europe, a lot of women got into medicine earlier than here. It was strange to be only three of us,” she said with a European accent, even after 55 years in America.
“I never felt any kind of discrimination or never suffered any slights,” she added. “I’m still good friends with not only the other women in the class, but many of the guys too.”
To support herself, Whitley kept two part-time jobs through all four years of medical school. She worked as an electron microscopic technician and as an assistant in the psychiatry department, which ignited her interest in psychiatry.
“Human beings were very fascinating to me. I was more interested in the person than the liver or the bone or a certain disease. The whole human being was more interesting than the parts of people,” she said. “That’s why I think I did well in psychiatry. I always enjoyed meeting people and being around them and trying to help them.”
After she wrote to her parents of her decision to specialize in psychiatry, her father quickly replied with a nine-page missive begging her to reconsider.
“Psychiatry was quackery, but surgery was a noble field. Or maybe even pediatrics might be suitable for a woman,” Whitley said of her father’s reaction. “It was the first time in my life that I was able to disappoint him.”
After graduation in 1962, Whitley started an internship at Herrick Memorial Hospital in Berkeley, Calif. She met her future husband, John Whitley, an anesthesiologist for the U.S. Air Force, when he moonlighted at the hospital on the weekends.
“I just fell madly in love,” Whitley said. “We were together from the first day that we met.”
John, a native Texan, wanted to return to Dallas once he completed his military service in 1965, so Whitley completed her residency at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. She then joined the faculty at UT Southwestern as a clinical instructor of psychiatry.
Whitley kept a part-time private psychiatry practice while she served as director of the adolescent male unit at Woodlawn Hospital and then as psychiatric consultant and director of the community mental health program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.
By the time she had her third child, Whitley became director of the Day Hospital Program at Presbyterian Hospital to be closer to her family. She continued working with medical students while maintaining her private practice.
“My husband retired a year before I did, and he wanted me home,” Whitley said. “Practicing psychiatry had become very difficult because no matter how good I was of a psychiatrist, a psychiatric disorder couldn’t be cured in the 48 hours they were in the hospital.”
By 1995, both Whitley and her husband had retired into their new careers — full-time grandparents of their growing brood.
The couple traveled the world with a “preference to strange and undeveloped areas of the world.” For instance, while John climbed the mountains of Nepal, Whitley enjoyed her Nepalese vacation on a sunny beach.
John passed away this summer before the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. Whitley now spends her days with her three children and eight grandchildren, all of whom live within three miles of her Dallas home.
“I’ve had a very interesting life, and the University of Florida was a great part of it,” Whitley said. “It was such a great, unbelievable fortune I had that Dr. Harrell was willing to take me with my bad English.
“It was basically the cornerstone of my professional career and my whole life.”