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Kay Pak Koller, retired Sheppard Pratt child psychiatrist, dies

Kay Koller defied her father's wishes to become a doctor.
Kay Koller defied her father's wishes to become a doctor. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Dr. Kay Pak Koller, a retired Sheppard Pratt Hospital child psychiatrist who experienced the end of World War II in her native Korea, died of cancer Sept. 26 at Gilchrist Hospice of Towson. The Timonium resident was 90.

Born in Pyongyang, in what is now North Korea, she was the daughter of Pak Myung Kun and his wife, Oak Chunza. She was a great-niece of Korea’s Queen Min and was a member of an influential family.

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“My mother was born to young parents who were each 19,” said her daughter, Kim Thiel Koller McClung of Timonium. “She was the eldest of five daughters and a son. Korea was not divided but was in the period of Japanese colonial rule. ... She was raised by her maternal grandmother, who made her the strong woman she became.”

Dr. Koller recalled in a memoir that she had an idyllic childhood where she ran with butterflies among cherry blossoms. She also said the happy days did not last.

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At age 14 she left Pyongyang for Seoul, where the rest of her family were living during the end of World War II. She was a graduate of Bai Wha High School in Seoul and began to learn English during her final year in high school after U.S. occupation forces arrived in Korea.

“I enjoyed school work and was competitive,” she wrote in a speech about her days in Korea. “I was a precocious child in every way. I was reciting a speech in Japanese when I was six years old.”

She said her father opposed her going to medical school and thought that women should not be educated. When he found out she had enrolled a premed course, he cut her off financially.

“He mercilessly told me to leave the house,” she wrote in her speech, given shortly after arriving in the U.S.

She left the family home and roomed with school friends. Her mother quietly sold her jewelry to support Dr. Koller at the school.

In her speech, she wrote of Aug. 15, 1945, when World War II ended in Asia. She was in a movie theater watching a film when a man came in and told the audience to leave at once. “To our bewilderment, there was a mob of people shouting and singing, ‘Celebrate the freedom.’ ”

As a medical student, she found work at the U.S. 14th Army Field Hospital. She recalled how a military chaplain named Small encouraged her to continue her education in the U.S. after her graduation from the Seoul Women’s Medical School.

“Korea was in a chaotic situation,” she wrote in her memoir. “I was in the middle of a war zone. I was a refugee from Seoul going to Busan. Life during the Korean War was unbearable”

She faced a financial decision in going to the U.S. for postdoctoral study. The airfare was $600, and the passage on a ship was $400. She sailed from Busan, the only woman on board, and spent two weeks crossing the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship. She landed at San Francisco, where she was met by Korean-American students who temporarily housed her before she traveled to Christian Hospital in Saint Louis.

She recalled the trip — the ship’s food was delicious and the weather was peaceful.

“I carried one suitcase and had $200,” she wrote. She retained that suitcase as a remembrance of the trip.

She later moved to Baltimore and trained at Union Memorial Hospital from 1956 to 1958. There she met her future husband, also a psychiatrist, Dr. E. Curtis Koller.

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Dr. Koller did a psychiatric residency at Sheppard Pratt Hospital beginning in 1968 and later joined its staff as a child psychiatrist. She retired in 1992.

She then became a staff psychiatrist at Sinai and Franklin Square hospitals and retired a second time in 1998.

“My mother was a quiet person who was studious. She was brave at all times,” her daughter said.

She taught English at the Korean Anglican Church of Baltimore and served on the vestry and as treasurer.

She rode horses as a young woman and played tennis throughout her life. She enjoyed ballroom dancing, knitting, and opera. She was also an avid reader.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include a son, Mark Curtis Koller of Lutherville, and a grandson.

Funeral services and interment are private.

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