With roots in Medicine, Duke Physician Assistant Program celebrates 50 years

Monday, September 28, 2015

In October, the Duke Physician Assistant Program will celebrate its 50th anniversary, marking the milestone of being the first physician assistant program in the nation and birthplace of the PA profession.

The PA program has its origins in the Department of Medicine. 

The PA program at Duke began in October 1965 when Eugene A. Stead, Jr., M.D., then-chair of the Department of Medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine, began a two-year curriculum to train people to fill a gap between physicians and nurses, and expand the prior education and experience of ex-military corpsmen.

There was a nursing shortage during this time, according to E. Harvey Estes, Jr., M.D., professor emeritus, Duke University School of Medicine, and former chair of Duke Community and Family Medicine. He says that skilled individuals were needed to assist in the laboratories and with medical procedures at Duke University Medical Center.

According to Estes, Stead and Henry McIntosh, M.D., head of Duke’s cardiac catheterization lab and coronary care unit, put their heads together to identify the best candidates to train for this new role.

“They looked at the employment structure around Durham and they said, ‘OK, what about firemen? Firemen work and they’re smart and they can learn to do things. … Many firemen work three days a week and then they’re off. Maybe we could recruit firemen to come in and do this.’ And they did that,” Estes says.

However, Estes says that because of the irregularity of the firemen’s schedules, this idea did not ultimately work. McIntosh and Stead then looked at the possibility of bringing former military corpsmen into this role. Some of McIntosh’s former medical students who had been in the Navy were successfully running laboratories in various Navy centers across the country, according to Estes.

This idea led to the recruitment of four former Navy corpsmen to comprise the first class of Duke PA students. Three of these students — Kenneth F. Ferrell, Victor H. Germino and Richard J. Scheele — completed the program.

Today, the Duke PA program has consistently been ranked one of the top programs in the nation, and currently is ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report. There currently are 179 students in the program — 91 in the first-year class, and 88 in the second-year class. 

Read more about the PA program's 50th anniversary and view photos.