By PAM McPHAIL
LaVerne Tolley left Calhoun City in 1939 to operate a beauty shop in West Point. Little did she know then that she would become known throughout medical circles as Dr. LaVerne Tolley Gurley, assistant professor of radiologic technology at the University of Tennessee Medical School in Memphis and Shelby State Community College.
At the age of 90, she is still speaking at conferences throughout the U.S. on her pioneering work in the field of radiology. The achievement for which she is most noted is the development of a mammography technique for breast cancer screening that greatly reduced the radiation exposure to the patient.
She was the second of five children born to Felix Wesley Tolley and Sarah Hearington Tolley. She came along in 1918 just as World War I had ended and the influenza epidemic was at its height.
In a “Prime Time” newsletter from the Central Church in Memphis which honored her accomplishments, Dr. Gurley talks about her younger days in Calhoun County.
She said her father, a farmer, had been a professional baseball player and had hopes that all his children would be athletic, but only two of his daughters liked playing ball just for the sport of it.
“All the Tolley children had their own strong points and he was very proud of each one,” she said.
After high school a classmate and close childhood friend of LaVerne’s, Nellie Lee, introduced her to a young man by the name of Kenneth William Gurley of Caledonia who worked in a nearby CCC Camp. A year later they married and moved to West Point.
Her career as a beautician was short-lived. She recalled that she only gave one permanent before they moved back to Calhoun City. Their next move was to Memphis in 1940 where he landed a job in what became known as MATA, driving several city bus routes. During World War II he worked for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and received a deferment, although he was later drafted.
In 1946, it looked as though the Gurleys were on top of the world. they had two beautiful children, Charlotte and Kenneth Jr., and World War II was over. Then without warning everything changed.
Kenneth suffered a brain hemorrhage and was not expected to live. Against all odds he still pulled through and even recovered enough to return to work at Firestone. Then came a second hemorrhage and the third disabled him again.
This was a turning point in LaVerne’s life. She would later say, “I was just a housewife, without a marketable skill in the world.”
Like a miracle, Kenneth survived the third debilitating brain hemorrhage and went to work for Shelby County, overseeing stores and supplies for the City of Memphis hospital.
As soon as she could, LaVerne enrolled in the University of Tennessee radiologic technology school. When she graduated in 1951 she was hired as a faculty member of U.T., but continued her education by registering in radiation therapy and nuclear medicine and earned her doctorate degrees.
Dr. Gurley served on the U.T. staff for 30 years and then in 1981 went to Shelby State Community College where she taught full time until 1988 and part-time until 1996.
Each year the Tennessee Society of Radiologic Technologists presents the LaVerne Gurley Award in recognition of outstanding technologists in the state. She has been listed in the “200 Women of Achievement,” “International Scholars Directory” and the “World’s Who’s Who of Women.” She is a fellow in the American Society of Radiologic Technologists and delivered the Jerman Memorial Lecture at the society’s annual meeting in Houston, Texas.
In 1996, 3M Company created a special award in her honor at Shelby State Community College which is given to the outstanding graduating senior in radiologic technology. This award acknowledges her as “one of the pioneers in the field who has moved our technology into a space-age, state-of-the-art field.”
Dr. Gurley has also authored a text book with William J. Callaway, B.A., R.T. (R)?entitled “Introduction to Radiologic Technology,” which has been published in its sixth edition.
James Ellis Simpson, who graduated in the Calhoun City High School class of 1952, said it was only fitting that Dr. Gurley be recognized for her achievements.
“This summer we had our class reunion at the home of former classmate Nancy Wade Jaffe of Germantown and Dr. Gurley was there,” Simpson said. “She will be 91 in October and she looked younger than any of us. She is still very active. She didn’t learn how to drive a car until after she got her doctorate degree. Now she drives all over the country giving seminars and lectures.”
“I remember the Tolley girls when we were all going to church singing school,” Simpson said. “I thought they were just beautiful. They lived near the American Legion down on a dead end road. I am so proud of LaVerne and the contribution she made in the field of radiology.”
Simpson served on the Memphis Police Department after graduating from Calhoun City High School. He returned to Calhoun after retirement and is a member of the county historical society.
Editor’s Note: Dr. LaVerne Tolley Gurley’s siblings included Marguerite, Larue, Grace, Cecil Ray, and Felix Wesley Tolley Jr.
Ray was drafted at 18 for World War II. He joined the Marines where he received the Navy Cross and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor. He was severely wounded during the Battle of Tinian.