Dr. James Henry Duke, Jr. was more likely known to most of us as the charismatic Dr. “Red” Duke. He was born in Ennis, Ellis County, Texas to James Henry (Sr.) and Helen Marion Donegan Duke. He graduated from high school in Hillsboro, Hill County, and then received a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M University in 1950. In connection with his degree at A&M, he did a two year tour of duty in the Army where he served as a tank officer in the 67th Medium Tank Battalion of 2nd Armored Division, spending some time in Germany. Dr. Duke then earned a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. While at Southwestern Seminary, he read a book by the pioneer physician Albert Schweitzer that changed his life’s focus and inspired him to pursue a career in academic medicine. He then earned an M. D. from University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in 1960 and served as an surgical intern in Dallas at Parkland Hospital until 1965.
Dr. Duke was a fourth year surgical resident in 1963 at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and was on duty on November 22, when visiting President John F. Kennedy was shot. Dr. Duke was eating lunch in a break room when the call came for the chief of surgical services, Dr. Tom Shires to come to the ER. He realized that it was quite unusual for the chief to be called and they both arrived at the ER about the same time. There he learned that the President had been shot and recalled randomly thinking that he had never met a president before. Duke also remembered having passed Mrs. Jackie Kennedy in her pink outfit and quickly learned that the President had suffered a serious head wound. He first went into the operating room with the President and then shifted over to work on another patient in the next room which was Texas Governor John Connally who had suffered a chest wound. As Duke was leaving the OR of the President, he pulled off his gloves and threw them into the waste bin. He recalled that they landed on the roses that Jackie had been holding when she came into Parkland. After fifty years, the image of the roses remained with him.
Dr. Duke scrubbed in again, treated the wounds of Governor Connally and stayed with him a lot through the next few days until his condition improved. There were no intensive care units at that time. Duke was again on duty two days later when Lee Harvey Oswald arrived at Parkland with a fatal gunshot wound. Connally recovered, and the two would later become good friends and hunt together.
Dr. Duke joined the faculty at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas as an assistant professor of surgery before he began serving as an assistant professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. While at Columbia, under a fellowship from the National Institute of Health, he studied biochemistry, chemical engineering and computer sciences.
From 1970 to 1972, Dr. Duke helped develop the Nangarhar University School of Medicine in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and served as a visiting professor and then chief of surgery. He grew to love the Afghani people and spoke fondly of his time there. When he returned to the United States, he helped to establish a Level 1 Trauma Center at Houston’s Memorial-Hermann Hospital and co-founded the first life flight program in the state in 1976. He was a founding member of the American Trauma Society. Countless lives have been saved just in the Houston area just from his innovative concept for life flight. With typical humility, when asked about this, he would always pass the credit on to EMS and life flight personnel.
(Image credit: memorialhermann.org)
He served as a consultant on news and other projects and was approached to host his own medical news spots, which became a nationally syndicated program called Dr. Red Duke’s Health Reports or the Texas Health Reports and which ran for 18 years. The late actor Dennis Weaver starred in a television series called Buck James based on the career of Dr. Duke. It ran for one season from 1987 to 1988.
Dr. Duke was also actively involved in wildlife conservation causes. He was a long time member and former president of the oldest conservation group in the United States, Boone and Crockett, founded by Teddy Roosevelt to promote conservation and wildlife management.
Dr. Duke passed away at age 86 in 2015. After a private ceremony, Dr. Duke was interred in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. His full list of awards and accolades would easily be longer than the rest of this article.
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