Sometimes when we look back at our history we overlook the living legends amongst us right here and right now. One living legend on our UTHealth faculty is trauma surgeon James H. “Red” Duke, Jr., MD. As the nation relives the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, the name Red Duke will not escape the national spotlight. Duke was a surgical resident at Parkland Hospital that fateful day in 1963 and tended to the other victim of the moment, Governor John Connally. Connally (1917-1993) would live another three decades and much credit goes to Duke who sat by the side of the governor and his wife, Nellie, night after night and modeled the difference between treating a patient and caring for a patient.
With his trademark bristly mustache, wire-rimmed glasses (vintage white gold-filled Army issue), Texas twang, and colorful stories, Duke is a one-of-a-kind folk hero with the personality of an old fashioned country doctor and the 24/7 skills of a modern day trauma surgeon. Should you be walking down the corridors of Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center and hear someone call out “hey bud” or “hey babe,” you can be sure Duke is close by. I once wrote an article on accident prevention with his input and he reminded me when it comes to bad diets and preventable accidents around the house “we all live in denial and that ain’t no river in Egypt.” His trademark “Dukeisms” are classics and could fill more than a few books.
Duke was born in Ennis, Texas and his family shortly thereafter moved to Hillsboro where the enterprising young Duke picked cotton, dug ditches, and became the lone agent for the Saturday Evening Post and the Dallas Morning News while earning Eagle Boy Scout distinction. He acquired his name, “Red,” from his childhood curly red locks. Hunting and fishing in the surrounding countryside he would often run across another red-head from nearby Abbott, Texas who would become a legendary country singer and lifelong friend, Willie Nelson.
Duke’s office in the UTHealth Medical School has more than a few of Willie’s cassette tapes and CDs scattered about along with prized gifts and mementoes from state and national leaders and his many patients over the years. Some of our enterprising medical students once had the good idea to clean and organize his office for him while he was out only to learn that wasn’t such a good idea. Everything has a place.
As a young boy he is said to have asked his mother who made more money, a preacher or a doctor. When she told him a doctor, he decided he would become a preacher. Graduating from Hillsboro High School, he attended Texas A&M and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree and school-wide popularity and distinction as an Aggie yell leader.
With his undergraduate degree in hand he served in Germany for two years as an Army tank commander before enrolling in the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. His divinity degree was followed by medical school at UT Southwest in Dallas where he graduated in 1960. To this day both Texas A&M and UT claim him as their own. Medical school was followed by postgraduate training including a surgical residency that placed him at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital that fateful day when the President and governor of Texas arrived.
You may not know he pursued additional graduate studies in chemical engineering, biochemistry and computer sciences at Columbia University in the late 1960s and moved his wife and children to Jalalabad, Afghanistan as a visiting professor and later chairman of surgery at Nangarhar University School of Medicine from 1970-1972.
In 1972 he joined our young medical school in its second year as a professor of surgery and never slowed his pace. In 1976 he helped launch Life Flight; a program that has become one of the premier air ambulance services in the country. By the 1980s his beloved persona and common sense ability to make the complicated seem simple led him to television shows like the PBS series, Bodywatch (premiered 1986), and Dr. Red Duke Texas Health Reports (syndicated internationally) while inspiring Hollywood to create a short-lived television series, Buck James (1987-88) starring Dennis Weaver who shadowed Duke for two weeks in Houston to develop his persona and style. Recalls Duke’s local producer, Mark Carlton, Duke actually made a cameo appearance in one episode, not as a doctor but as an oil rig foreman. Additionally Duke made appearances on NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, and PM Magazine.
All contributed to make him a household name across the country as a one-of-a-kind trauma surgeon who closed his Health Reports programs with the familiar, “From The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston…(pause)…I’m Dr. Red Duke.” By the late 1980s his name was even bantered about nationally as a future candidate for Surgeon General.
From wildlife conservation (founded and served as president of the Texas Bighorn Society) to current work with the U.S. military to enhance medical technology on the battlefield and surgical techniques supporting the medical needs of our military personnel, Duke seems to be everywhere. He is currently working with Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Workforce Commission to support jobs initiatives for hiring veterans in addition to a new pastime, painting, with some of his landscape art adorning his Life Flight office.
If we’re going to talk ‘bout time and our history, let’s not overlook the living legends among us including our very own Red Duke. The John B. Holmes Professor of Clinical Sciences, Duke is as colorful as he is compassionate. From the most complex surgical procedures to a dose of his simple homespun humor, he is in my book as a timeless UTHealth legend.
‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.
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