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James “Red” Duke

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 27 October 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h5707
  1. Ned Stafford, Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Trauma surgeon who treated wounded Texas governor on the day US President Kennedy was assassinated

As a young man, James “Red” Duke had planned to become a preacher. But after reading a book about German missionary and doctor Albert Schweitzer, Duke was inspired to study medicine and became an outstanding trauma surgeon. Throughout the years, however—from his childhood in a small town near Dallas, Texas, until his death in Houston—he remained a cowboy at heart. “I am a frustrated cowboy,” Duke said last year at the age of 85. “I was born a hundred years too late.”

Duke had legendary charm and a playful “laugh out loud” sense of humour. He was well known in the US for his television reports where he gave health and medical advice in his strong Texan accent. He also carried an aura of history around him—he was on duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas in 1963 when President John F Kennedy and Governor John Connally, both with gunshot wounds, were rushed into the emergency room.

Duke served for four decades as medical director of the Life Flight helicopter ambulance unit at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston. He drove to work in his pick-up truck and strode into the hospital, wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans held up with a belt made from rattlesnake skin. And, of course, he was crowned with a cowboy hat over …

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