Dr. George B. Udvarhelyi dies

Famed neurosurgeon had been active in the Hungarian underground during World War II and as a young physician treated Eva Peron

June 24, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Dr. George B. Udvarhelyi, an internationally known Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who established the Office of Cultural Affairs at the East Baltimore medical school, died Tuesday evening at Roland Park Place of complications from a neck fracture. He was 90.

"George Udvarhelyi was a colorful character who during his years there made remarkable contributions to the medical school at Hopkins," said Dr. Richard S. Ross, former dean of the Johns Hopkins medical school. "He was a cosmopolitan Middle European gentleman who was always impeccably dressed and drenched in fine cologne."

Dr. Udvarhelyi was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, where his father was a college professor and a classical philologist, and his mother a physician.

He was a graduate of St. Stephen's gymnasium, and after earning his medical degree in 1944 from the University of Budapest, he began a residency at the Neurological University Clinic in Budapest.

During World War II, Dr. Udvarhelyi was a member of the Hungarian underground, which worked against the Nazi occupation.

He served as a messenger to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Budapest who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi extermination by granting them Swedish passports and offering them a diplomatic haven.

"I delivered mostly false Swedish passports," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1995 interview. "All we were told was to go to certain places, go to a church, have a code word, a password, and give an envelope to somebody."

When the Russians occupied Hungary at the end of the war, he barely escaped being deported to Siberia.

"Hungary has always been oppressed," Dr. Udvarhelyi told The Evening Sun in a 1989 article. "First it was the Germans, then it was Stalin. … Although it was difficult to get out, I escaped in 1946. I had $40 and one suit."

Dr. Udvarhelyi left his hospital post and traveled to Vienna, Austria, where he was assistant in the neurological and psychiatric clinic at the University of Vienna. He later became foreign assistant in the psychiatric clinic at the University of Berne in Switzerland.

In February 1948, he boarded a steamer in Genoa, Italy, for a voyage that would take him to Argentina and a position as a surgical resident in the division of neurological surgery at the Hospital Espanol in Cordoba.

Walking the decks of the ship, Dr. Udvarhelyi was astonished to see several passengers who were former SS military and Nazi representatives he had known in Budapest, now dressed in civilian clothes and fleeing to exile in South America.

"It suddenly dawned on me that Argentina may be a country which could be considered a refuge for all those dubious elements who survived the war and changed personalities and clothes while trying to embark on a new existence," he wrote in an unpublished memoir.

He was working at the Institute of Neurosurgery at the University of Buenos Aires when he caught his first glimpse of Eva Peron, the glamorous wife of dictator Juan D. Peron, standing on a balcony. She would later become his patient.

"She was talking about the descamisados, shirtless people, and the simple life, while wearing a million dollars' worth of jewelry," he told a Sun reporter in a 2005 interview.

"Eva was of average height. She was very elegant, wore lots of jewelry and had beautiful hair. She had an elegant walk and had learned how to behave like a lady despite her background," he said. "She was a very lively person who made eye contact and would gesticulate during conversation."

After she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, Dr. Udvarhelyi said a prefrontal lobotomy was performed to relieve the pain. Eva Peron was 33 when she died in 1952, and he recalled the hysterical grief that swept Argentina.

As a member of a medical team that stood by her bier for three days assisting mourners overcome with emotion, he recalled hearing crowds in the streets chanting over and over: "Evita, Evita, why did you leave us, why don't you come back?"

In 1953, he left Argentina when he became an assistant at the Neurological Clinic of the University of Cologne, and after a year, became registrar in the department of surgical neurology at the Royal Infirmary in Scotland.

He came to Hopkins in 1955 as a fellow in neurosurgery and two years later became an assistant resident in neurosurgery. He was appointed professor of neurosurgery in 1969 and emeritus in 1984.

"When he had contact with a patient for the first time, he saw them as human beings, not as walking disease," said Johns Hopkins University humanities professor Richard A. Macksey, who was a longtime friend.

Dr. Udvarhelyi trained interns to ask patients what they did for a living and about their interests, not just about their medical problems.

One of Dr. Udvarhelyi's greatest surgical accomplishments was bringing from France to Hopkins in the late 1960s the microsurgery technique that went through the nose to the base of the brain to remove pituitary tumors.

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