Elmer Whitney MD

All of us who have spent time in our ophthalmological lives on the tenth floor remember the Whitney Room, but who does it memorialize?  Who was Elmer Whitney?

Since there aren’t all that many of us remaining whose careers in the department overlapped his, perhaps it is well worth remembering him

I knew him well and on his retirement inherited his office. As the “Number Two’ in the department, having those farthest west examining rooms was a tremendous blessing as they included the only other private adjoining office —- with a seven foot leather couch for essential naps!  (Unlike Jack Guyton’s, at the far eastern end of the floor, which also had a leather couch, Elmer’s had no private bathroom.)

Dr Whitney was a polite, humble, considerate, self-effacing gentleman.  He was a Kansan by birth and perhaps his laconic personality rose from those flat, dust bowl acres.

Born in 1886, he had come to the Henry Ford Hospital in 1919, one of the earliest physicians to spend his entire career here.  He was graduate of the University of Kansas Medical School, and had interned at Roosevelt Hospital in New York.  During Wold War I, Dr Whitney had served as a Lieutenant in the U S Navy Medical Corps. When the main hospital was opened in 1919, shortly after the war ended, Elmer was a resident in Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat. On completing his Residency he joined the Senior staff.  Though he practiced “Double ENT” for a few years, he soon concentrated on ophthalmology and in 1935 was  named Chief of the Division of Ophthalmology, of the General Surgery Department. (It will be remembered that the only way that Robin Buerki could shoe horn Jack Guyton out of the Wilmer Institute in 1953 was to make Ophthalmology a Department. I remember Jack telling me he never could work for any Chief of General Surgery.)

On Jack’s arrival in Detroit, he named Elmer a Consultant Ophthalmologist and in drawing up plans for the tenth floor, he included a special suite of offices for him. Though Elmer never took an active role in department affairs after Jack arrived, he thoroughly enjoyed a slow paced, entirely leisurely, book of long time patients until he retired and bequeathed his offices to me in 1965.

Elmer Whitney MD, was a gentleman’s physician who mixed compassionate care with vast experience. He was able, kind, unpretentious and dedicated to the Henry Ford Hospital practice pattern. His residents loved him, and though I never worked for him, I had profound respect and admiration for his wise counsel and gentle humor. He was, indeed, one of the early titans of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, who joined and played an active role in virtually every society physicians of his era embraced.  

It is good that we remember him with the Whitney Room.  My eternal hope will be that ultimately, when we have the Eye Institute of world class, which this magnificent department now deserves, the library will still be called “The Whitney Room”

- Philip Hessburg, May 2017
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