The television image of the man with the thick mustache and thick Texas drawl dispensing life-saving medical advice captivated the nation. Dr. “Red” Duke rose from modest Texas roots to becoming a respected surgeon and a beloved personality.
James Henry Duke was born in Ennis, just south of Dallas, in 1928. The family moved to nearby Hillsboro a few years later. Duke grew up working a series of jobs such as digging ditches, picking cotton, and delivering newspapers before graduating from high school in 1946. Because of his red hair, he picked up the nickname “Red” along the way.
He earned a degree from Texas A&M University in 1950 and served in the U. S. Army working on tanks. Here, his interests began changing, coupled with his intense curiosity about the world. After his army service, he earned a divinity degree in 1955 at Southwestern Theological Seminary in Dallas. He later said that reading a book about the famous missionary and physician Dr. Albert Schweitzer inspired him to pursue medicine instead. He earned his medical degree from UT Southwestern in 1960. He then began his formal medical residency, his hands-on training as a doctor, at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
One of his earliest cases as a trauma surgeon was also one of his most tragic. He was working in the emergency room at Parkland on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was rushed into the hospital. Duke was among the first to examine the fallen president, whose injuries were fatal. He was then ordered to tend to the other critically injured patient arriving with Kennedy, Gov. John Connally. Connally barely survived.
Duke left Parkland in 1965 and began serving as a surgical professor at UT Southwestern. He also became a professor at Columbia University Medical School in New York. His continuing concerns over the state of trauma care in the country led him to found the American Trauma Society with other trauma surgeons in 1968. In 1972, he returned to Texas as part of the staff at Texas Medical Center in Houston.
In 1976, he created the Life Flight air ambulance system, creating a network of helicopters and paramedics who transported critical patients to Texas Medical Center. Duke would serve as medical director of the program from its inception for the rest of his years. The program was initially designed to fly patients from remote areas or from areas with insufficient medical care within a 150-mile radius of Houston. As the program grew, it expanded to providing airplane flights for patients across the globe into Houston.
While transporting patients to hospitals by helicopter had begun as early as the Korean War in the 1950s with the U. S. Army transporting patients to field hospitals, Life Flight was a new development in civilian medicine for the region. A similar system for North Texas-area hospitals outside Life Flight’s 150-mile radius started in 1979. This organization, CareFlite, was established in no small part thanks to the success of Dr. Red Duke’s Life Flight system.
Life Flight continues to fly more than 3,000 missions each year and has flown more than 140,000 patients in its 35-year history.
In the 1980s, he began delivering regular reports on health issues on television stations across the country. His folksy, down-to-earth style, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of current health issues made him a household name. In 2014, the Alvin Independent School District named its new elementary school after him. In his later years, he continued to tour the country, talking about his career in medicine and offering health advice. Dr. Red Duke passed away on August 25, 2015, at age 86.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.