Departmental History

Since the 1970s, Medical Center Archives has played a vital role in preserving and providing access to the legal, administrative, and historical records of the Medical Center and Health System administrative offices, department chairs and chiefs, and faculty. By preserving the Medical Center's documentary heritage, the Archives makes it possible to study contributions of members to the Medical Center community and history of the institution. As of 2020, the Archives has over 10,000 linear feet of materials documenting Duke Health's history.

Medical Center Archives contains papers of significant personalities including W.C. Davison, Ewald Busse, William Alexander Perlzweig, Francis Huntington Swett, Bessie Baker, and Frederick Moir Hanes. Correspondence, speeches, short writings, photographs, budgets, oral histories and research materials located within these papers allow researchers to follow the professional activities of Duke individuals. Archives also has many artifacts used in early clinical examinations: an otoscope, a haemactometer, blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, and gastroscopes. In fact, one of the Archives' recent acquisitions was the doctor's bag of a first-year Duke medical student (1941).

The historical collections in the Archives contain materials documenting the groundbreaking work of Duke medical professionals. The records of the Duke Poison Control Center, headed by Jay Arena and later Shirley K. Osterhout, provide evidence of the Center's international leadership and development of the first childproof safety cap. Another collection, the 65th General Hospital collection, includes photographs and reports documenting skilled surgery and wound treatment on the battlefield. Images of buildings, ceremonies, individuals, and shots of news-making events and discoveries. One highlight of the collection is a photograph of the first autopsy performed at Duke.

The impetus for an archive at the Duke University Medical Center was an October 1965 article published in the Intercom, the forerunner of Duke Dialogue, entitled, "Wait, Please...Before You Throw That Away!" The authors requested that individuals send in their "priceless" materials to become part of the reading room of the new Medical Center Library, to be devoted to the "History of Duke University Medical Center." Barnes Woodhall, M.D., Vice Provost, and G.S.T. Cavanagh, then Director of the Medical Center Library, coordinated this first formal attempt to collect materials. Three years later, through the support of a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Elon Clark, coordinator and professor of medical art, began collecting official papers, photographs, printed materials, and interviews pertaining to the history and business of the Medical Center. Through the interest and participation of many Medical Center faculty members, the Medical Center Archives was formally established in 1977.