Dr. Barbara Harsanyi’s distinguished dental career in Halifax began when she came here in 1970 as an assistant professor in oral pathology, the study of the nature and causes of oral disease. She retired from Dalhousie’s Faculty of Dentistry 25 years later as a full professor, having taught students in dentistry, dental hygiene and oral surgery, and occasionally medical students and dental assistants. Barbara also did research and participated in case presentations with local general pathologists. She cared for dental patients, starting a “mouth clinic” to involve students in the diagnoses and treatment of serious conditions such as cancer. Even after retirement, Barbara taught dental hygienists part time and made presentations. “Halifax felt wonderful, peaceful,” says Barbara, who was an assistant professor at Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Tennessee.
Her contributions to Nova Scotia went beyond work. Through the Universalist Unitarian Church she organized resettlement of a Vietnamese refugee family and helped settle an Afghani refugee family, including hiring two members to assist her ailing mother. She also assisted a Transylvanian Hungarian refugee family. Barbara’s need to help grew from her own experience during World War II. She vividly recalls the horror of the bombing and her family’s frightening escape from Hungary to Germany. In 1952, thanks to the International Refugee Organization, Barbara, her mother and younger sister sailed from Italy to Colombia to join relatives. On board she met Alex Kulnys – soon her first husband. As musicians they chose to live in Ibague – the music capital of Colombia – and Bogota, where there was a national symphony. Daughter Daina was born while Barbara studied dentistry. Restrictions on their US visa meant leaving before graduation. They stayed with friends in Chicago until she found work in international sales promotion. Alex worked also, but the marriage crumbled.
Barbara returned to Colombia with her mother and daughter to complete her degree, practise dentistry and teach. She met Hungarian artist Fedor L. Harsanyi, then returned with him to the US as civil marriage was impossible in Colombia. After working a short while as a research assistant at the University of Oregon School of Dentistry, she obtained a scholarship to specialize in oral pathology leading to her work in Tennessee and Halifax. “I found friends here but mostly they were other ‘come-from-aways,’” she recalls. Fedor worked as an architectural draftsman but died of a brain tumour at 55 during Barbara’s sabbatical year studying for a Canadian dental degree permitting her to treat patients. “It was a dismal year trying to be a student again while caring for a dying husband. With the help of friends, I did it,” she says proudly, noting that she graduated with advanced standing in 1977, shortly after Fedor’s death.
Now fully retired, Barbara is still active in her church and music. “Music has always been an emotional outlet for me.” Barbara was dealt with tragedy – daughter Daina also died – but she has found solace. “My grandchildren were born here and I eventually married a Canadian.” She also has extended family through husband Rodney Vaughan. “A trip to Hungary made me realize that is the past. I saw the woods and lakes of Nova Scotia from the plane. It was like coming home.”
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