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Helen Stoddard Whaley, M.D.

Photo of Helen Stoddard Whaley, M.D.
Categories: 2011 Alumnae, Medicine


The first woman pediatrician in Alaska (1954), Dr. Helen Whaley was a pioneer in championing medical and educational resources for all Alaska children, especially those with physical and developmental disabilities. Known as a brilliant clinician, she was tireless in the treatment and support of “her kids”. Dr. Whaley co-founded the Anchorage Pediatric Group (1956); founded the Alaska Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (1965); and founded the Child Study Center in Anchorage, which provided diagnostic services for brain injured and handicapped children. The Whaley Center in Anchorage, a special education center for children with significant disabilities, is named in her honor.

Dr. Helen Whaley, who is described as “brilliant”, “formidable”, “deeply caring” and whose vision and energy added a new dimension to pediatric care in Alaska, was raised in a background of wealth, death and poverty – all before she was 12. Those who loved her believe these experiences made her the brilliant clinician she was. “She didn’t listen to what patients literally said,” her husband, Dr. Robert Whaley, comments, ”she listened for what they meant. She had learned early there was a significant difference.”

Her mother Helen, a “beautiful country girl” from the Midwest, was swept off her feet by the “dashing” Jack Stoddard, oil rich, destined to be mayor of Denver, Colo. Helen and her four younger brothers were raised with governesses – until she was 9 years old, and her father shot himself. He was broke. Her mother had no skills, The children were parceled off to relatives. Two year later, when Helen was 11, her mother died of breast cancer.

In l944, when Bob Whaley (also a pioneer physician in Alaska) met the 20 year-old Helen Stoddard in medical school, she was working her way through by “cleaning out tank cars, doing very rough work”. “We visited her uncle who had helped raised the children (two of her brothers had died tragically by then). He took me aside and asked, ‘She’s a girl; do you think she can really be a doctor?’ I told him no one could stop her.”

Robert and Helen married in l946, while both were in medical school.

Helen received her M.D. in 1950 from the University of California Berkeley and San Francisco. After a medical internship, she served her residency in pediatrics at UC San Francisco. She was chief pediatric resident at the University of Colorado, at Colorado General Hospital in Denver. Helen later studied neurology at Boston’s Children’s Hospital (l956) and pediatric neurology at Stanford University in l966. Dr. Helen Whaley earned her way to the top of her field during her years of practice in Alaska.

“You have no idea how hard she worked,” says Dr. Bob Whaley. “On top of the other hardships of her life, she had a learning disability. She was always just tremendously determined and she was completely dedicated to her kids.”

The Whaleys came to Alaska in the early l950s when Bob was drafted; Bob arrived in l953 and Helen in l954. The year she arrived, Helen volunteered as a pediatric consultant for the Alaska Native Hospital in Anchorage. She and Dr. John Tower, later joined by Dr. Harvey Zartman, continued a regular consultation service to the (then) Indian Health Service, providing pediatric expertise for the Native population of the entire state as well as to the children of Anchorage. Dr. Whaley and Dr. Tower co-founded the Anchorage Pediatric Group in l956.

The next 15 years were filled with immense energy and joy and lasting contributions. Helen Whaley became one of the pioneers in providing quality, state-of-the-art pediatric care to Alaska’s children. She served on the American Academy of Pediatrics Indian Health Committee. Her efforts in founding and directing the Child Study Center for brain injured and handicapped children led to in-state multidisciplinary diagnostic services. She directed the Alaska Crippled Children’s Treatment Center, which served all of Alaska.

Dr. Whaley is described over and over again as setting a very high standard of medical care for all of Alaska’s children. “For those of us who followed, her high standards of care set an example”, writes Dr. Elizabeth Hatton.

Then tragedy struck again. Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer. “She faced her final months with stoicism, and worked from home until a week before her death,” wrote Chris Tower Zafren.

Dr. Helen Whaley died in l971 at age 47. In 1973, the Helen S. Whaley School was constructed as a Special Education Center for Learner Assistance for students with significant physical and developmental disabilities.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech