Duke Grads Nation’s First Physician Assistants

The inaugural class of graduates from Duke’s PA program. Image from the Duke University Medical Center Archives.On October 6, 1967, three students graduated from Duke’s Physician Assistant (PA) Program and became the first PAs in the country.

When Dr. Eugene A. Stead, Jr., then Chairman of Duke’s Department of Medicine, established the PA Program in 1965, it was the first of its kind in the nation. A two-year course that trained students to practice medicine and provide health care services under a doctor’s supervision, the program aimed to address the problem of the physician shortage, particularly in rural areas throughout North Carolina.

While the initial recruitment was targeted at ex-military corpsmen who possessed some medical experience, Duke’s PA program soon attracted a wide range of applicants, including women and people of color seeking new career opportunities in medicine.

Today there are nearly 100,000 PAs practicing across the United States. The success of the profession during the second half of the 20th century is due in part to the early efforts of PA leaders, graduates, and students in North Carolina. They worked to have the profession legally recognized and accredited,

founded the American Academy of Physician Assistants – the official organization for the profession – and were instrumental in the development of certification and continuing education guidelines.


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A special thanks to the Duke University Medical Center Archives and Assistant Director Jolie Braun for putting this story together.