For Dr. Jean Bennett, it all started with a voice.

It was March 1960, during one of her 10 a.m. Sunday rounds on the seventh floor of UF Health Shands Hospital, three months before she would be the first woman to graduate from the UF College of Medicine.

Walking down the pediatrics wing hallway, Bennett heard the voice from inside a patient’s room, she said. It was her favorite professor, Dr. Richard Smith, consoling a mother, father and their ill child.

That’s when Bennett was certain of her path as a pediatrician, she said.

“It was just phenomenal, his ability to sit at the bed of a dying patient with leukemia, for example, and make the parents feel OK,” she said. “I stood right there, and I said, ‘Dear God, let me be one ten-millionth as good as he is.”

Bennett, 81, looks back at her four years in medical school fondly. She and the other 39 students were the first class to graduate from the newly developed UF College of Medicine, she said. They bonded over long hours of study and Saturday-night cooking sessions.

She still keeps in contact with them, especially her friend and former study partner, Dr. James “Jim” Free, who helped develop Gatorade in 1965. Every time someone from their graduating class passes away, she calls Free. Of the original 40, there are about 18 left, she said.

“Our class was so close — I don’t know a single classmate of mine that’s living that I could not call today and say, ‘Joe, I’m really in a bind I need something,’” she said. “Joe would say, ‘How much you need?’”

In those years at UF, Bennett said she never felt much prejudice.

Despite being only one of three women in the entire class, she feels she and her two fellow woman graduates, Betty Robinson Drake and Kay Miller Whitacker, were given a fair shot.

“No one ever gave me anything for being a woman, and no one ever took anything from me for being a woman,” she said.  

For the next 43 years in the medical field, she never worried about being a woman. She opened her own practice following graduation in a 3-bedroom house in Clearwater, Florida. In 1963, she took up emergency care work at Morton Plant Hospital.

Since retiring in 2003, the UF Alumni Hall of Fame inductee hasn’t skipped a beat. Once or twice a year she gives back to her alma mater and shares her story with new medical students.

Medicine is an art, not a science, she tells them.

“It’s an art that is enabled with science,” she said. “Listen to the patient long enough, they’ll give you the diagnosis.”

It was December when Jane Harrell got the call.

The College of Medicine faculty decided 23-year-old Harrell, who just completed her first semester as a UF medical student, should receive the four-year Jean Lester Bennett Scholarship.

Bennett told the faculty she wanted the money to go to a compassionate student in financial need, Harrell wrote in an email.

“I hope that I can exemplify her strength and caring nature as a physician someday,” wrote the Belleview, Massachusetts, native.

Harrell first felt called to medicine in Summer 2013 as a rising UF applied physiology and kinesiology sophomore. For three months, Harrell was a counselor at Camp Boggy Creek, a camp in Lake County, Florida, for children with serious medical illnesses. Bonding with those kids led her to medical school, she said.

Bennett and Harrell met for lunch after Harrell won the scholarship, and the two still write each other once a month, touching on shared medical school experiences across generations.

“It was love at first sight,” Bennett said of meeting Harrell.

Bennett sees their relationship as passing the same torch Dr. Smith gave to her 57 years ago in the seventh-floor Shands patient room. Her advice to Harrell and other aspiring pediatricians is simple, she said: Listen to your patients, listen to yourself.

“I tell them (to) follow where their heart leads them,” she said. “Hopefully somewhere along the way, someone will inspire them the same way Dr. Smith inspired me.”

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