Medical Center History - Overview

The concept for Duke Medicine began in the mid-1920s during the final years James Buchanan Duke’s life. In 1924, he used $40 million to establish the Duke Endowment and directed that 6 million be used to transform Trinity College into Duke University. The next year, upon his death, he made an additional bequest to the Endowment and the University, including $4 million to establish a medical school, hospital and nurses home.

One of Duke's primary motivations in establishing the Endowment and Duke School of Medicine was the improvement of health care in the Carolinas, a relatively poor region of the country at that time, lacking in physicians, hospitals and medical schools.

He also hoped Duke would become the best medical institution between Baltimore and New Orleans. Indeed, less than four years after the new school and hospital opened in 1930, an accreditation committee of the American Medical Association placed Duke among the top 20 schools in the country.

Two years after the bequest, construction began on the original hospital (now known as the Duke Clinic), which opened in 1930. Although Durham already had two hospitals – Watts and Lincoln – Duke would be unique in offering specialized medical care, and with 400 beds, it would be by far the largest hospital in the city’s history. Some experts were skeptical about the idea of a medical facility of this size in Durham, arguing that the area was not densely populated enough to support it. But patients were willing to travel. On the hospital’s first day, 17 patients were registered. The number continued to grow at an extraordinary rate and, by 1932, over 10,000 patients had been treated.

While it began as a regional hospital, today the component entities of Duke Health have grown into one of the country's largest clinical and biomedical research institutions. Duke Health encompasses a health system that spans 32 counties in North Carolina and includes areas in neighboring states. It is recognized as one of top health care organizations in the country, known for its commitment to education, research and innovation.

For a historical overview, we encourage you to view a timeline of selected events. We also have compiled lists of chancellors, deans and department chairs from the founding of Duke Medicine until the present day. We hope these tools guide your own research and discovery of the many important events in Duke Health’s history.