James Robert Clapp, MD, professor emeritus of medicine (Nephrology), died May 2, 2020 at age 88.
“Dr. Clapp was instrumental in building the Duke Division of Nephrology, and he was well-known for his dedication to caring for patients with advanced kidney disease and hypertension,” said Kathleen Cooney, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine. “He is fondly remembered by many colleagues and patients alike.”
Dr. Clapp was born in Chatham County (North Carolina) and was raised on the family farm. He was a graduate of Siler City High School, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. After graduation from medical school in the class of 1957, he completed his internship and residency in Internal Medicine in Dallas, Texas, and fellowship training in Nephrology at Parkland Hospital. In 1961, he became lead investigator in the Kidney and Electrolyte Division at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.
Clapp returned to Durham in 1963 to join the Duke University School of Medicine as an associate in the Division of Nephrology. (See History of Duke Nephrology) His first 10 years were focused on research in the area of renal physiology. During this time, he was named an Established Researcher for the American Heart Association, and subsequently became one of three faculty members at Duke to receive the first Howard Hughes Fellowships. In 1972, he was promoted to the position of Professor of Medicine.
In 1973, his interests shifted from research to clinical medicine, and he began to provide care for patients with advanced kidney disease and hypertension. As a practicing clinician, Clapp had a profound impact on the lives of his patients and their families. In 1991, he was appointed director of the Wallace Clinic, and he founded what is now the Duke Executive Health Program.
Mary Klotman, MD, dean of the School of Medicine and an expert on the molecular pathogenesis of Human Immunodeficiency Virus 1 (HIV-1) infection, studied renal physiology with Dr. Clapp during her training at Duke.
"Jim was just a wonderfully down-to-earth, warm human being, and his stellar scientific intellect was matched by the highest standards of patient care,” said Dr. Klotman. “He was a role model to me and so many other physician scientists at Duke.”
In addition to his many accomplishments as a nationally recognized medical researcher, clinician, and professor, Clapp served on numerous professional boards and was the recipient of several distinguished honors, including an Honorary Alumnus Award from the Duke Medical Alumni Association in 2014 (see video below).
His legacy and contribution to Duke will continue through the James R. Clapp Endowed Professorship in the Department of Medicine (currently held by Thomas Coffman, MD), the James R. Clapp Nephrology Endowment, and the James R. Clapp Research Endowment in the Duke Center for Living.
Dr. Clapp is survived by his loving wife of 66 years, Janet Hunt Clapp of Durham; their son, Charles Thomas Clapp (“Tommy”); and five grandchildren. Another son, James Robert Clapp, Jr. (“Bobby”), died in 2012.
A celebration and memorial to Dr. Clapp's life will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to the Durham Rescue Mission.
Thomas Coffman, MD
Dean, Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore
James R. Clapp Professor of Medicine
"Jim Clapp was a gentleman, genuine and without pretense. In his early career, he was an accomplished scientist who helped define the basic physiology of nephron function. He worked with nephrology pioneers like Donald Seldin and achieved international recognition for his research, including his selection among the first group of Howard Hughes investigators. With Ike Robinson, Caulie Gunnells, and others, Jim helped to establish the Duke Division of Nephrology and build its academic reputation. Later, Jim made a considered decision to change his career focus to patient care and spent many years as a compassionate clinician. His patients revered him and were charmed by his down-to-earth Siler City manners. Jim was also a story-teller who loved to regale colleagues with humorous anecdotes from the early days of the Division. Even many years after leaving scientific pursuits, Jim was always capable of asking penetrating questions at conferences, reflecting his innate curiosity and intellect. Finally, Jim loved Duke and was a prodigious fundraiser for the institution. As the holder of an endowed professorship in his name, I have been proud to be associated with the legacy of James R. Clapp, an outstanding physician and honorable man."
Laura Svetkey, MD, MHS
Professor of Medicine (Nephrology)
“I have a strong sweet spot for Jim. When I joined the Division of Nephrology in 1984, having spent all my prior life in the Northeast, he completely blew all my stereotypes about the southern white male. He had this incredible drawl, constant grin, and kindly, slightly goofy manner. In conferences, he would ask the most fundamental questions. I'm afraid it was embarrassingly easy for me to stereotype him as unsophisticated and even simple. And then he would follow up that seemingly simplistic question with the most brilliant explanation for the physiology underlying his question and what the presenter needed to understand in order to do their research better. As it turned out, he essentially invented one of the seminal research techniques for nephrology studies—single nephron micropuncture—and used it to make key discoveries about renal physiology. I loved being surprised in this way and can remember thanking him (silently) for reminding me that stereotyping anyone is a bad idea.”
Peter Kussin, MD
Professor of Medicine (Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine)
"I remember Jim as a great clinician, a wonderful colleague and an enormous advocate for Duke. He was a visionary who started Duke's first multidisciplinary specialty clinic at the off-site Duke Center for Living, and he invited me to move my clinic there. It was a great place to work mainly because Jim cared deeply about each and every staff member.”
Stephen Smith, MD
Professor of Medicine (Nephrology)
“Dr. Clapp was an always affable person who presented himself as just a humble guy from Siler City, but he was often the person to ask the key question in a conference or about a patient’s problem. As an NIH-funded scientist he elucidated the mechanism of commonly used diuretics and then later transitioned into primarily taking care of patients. There are still many patients whom I inherited from Dr. Clapp who remember him with great fondness.
Brian Wolf, MD
Assistant Professor of Medicine (General Internal Medicine)
Provider, Duke Signature Care
"I had the honor of caring for Jim later in his life, and the misfortune of not knowing him when he was younger. He always expressed great pride in the clinics he built and the discoveries he made, but equally in his children and family. He was a caring soul, and we will miss him."