Decades of Duke-isms: Remembering Dr. Red Duke

Decades of Duke-isms: Remembering Dr. Red Duke
Screengrab from UT Health video

Dr. James "Red" Duke was one of a kind. We knew him from his nationally syndicated TV news segments where the doctor, already known as the most famous trauma surgeon in the world, would talk to viewers in plain English about everything from the art of surgery to life lessons about the importance of making time for yourself and the people who really matter to you.  

Duke died of natural causes on Tuesday at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. He was 86 years old. 

Duke was already famous and renowned for other things — namely for working on Gov. John Connally after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and for inventing Life Flight — but he got extra-famous, of course, when he started appearing on TV in "Dr. Red Duke's Health Reports." We've rounded up a few of our favorite videos of Duke as we remember the man who was known as the best trauma surgeon in the world. That's right, Houston was lucky enough to have the best trauma surgeon in the world working right here for more than 40 years, and he'll be sorely missed. 

Duke was born and raised in Ennis, Texas, and we've always thought it was that small-town rearing that gave him the homespun country doctor feel that made him so fun to watch during the 15 years that "Dr. Red Duke's Health Reports" was on the air. But while Duke was an avid hunter who dressed like a cowboy and talked in "Duke-isms," he was in fact a brilliant man, just the kind who should be a doctor.

In 1963, Duke was in his fourth year at Parkland Hospital in Dallas when he got a call that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and was on his way to the hospital. Duke was the first doctor to get Kennedy, but the president was quickly surrounded by a fleet of doctors who went to work on him. Duke saw Jackie Kennedy covered in blood, took in how Kennedy was also spattered with gore and decided he could do more good elsewhere. Duke heard that another man had been shot, so he stepped over to Connally — who had been forgotten and was going untreated while the doctors struggled to save Kennedy — and went to work. Duke tells it better than we ever could in an interview in 2013 for CBS News commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination: 

Saving Connally would alone have been enough to get Duke a mention in the history books, but he was also a brilliant trauma surgeon. After arriving at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston in the early 1970s, Duke set up the trauma service at what would become Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. He was key in bringing the first level 1 trauma center to Houston, and was also the one who created Memorial Hermann's Life Flight program, the first air medical transport in the state.

When asked during a day-in-the-life segment on KTRK's Eyewitness News if he thought of retiring, he replied in classic Duke that he had no intention of quitting: "People retire, their brains rot." Duke went on to tell the interviewer, "Sweetie, I've been doing this 40 years. I'm in condition. Now if you took somebody I graduated from high school with and tied them to my ankle, it'd kill them.”  He stayed in shape and stayed on the job. Here's what his day-to-day work life was like when he was 72:

And then there were his TV segments. We remember watching Duke as he talked in a Texas drawl with the deadpan face and the shaggy mustache about everything from how surgery worked to how one ought to live. This segment on the importance of regional trauma systems is classic Duke:

And then there's the one on the importance of time away. This is a guy who saved countless lives through his own work and through his innovations in how Houston hospitals handle trauma. But Duke was smart enough to know that there's always more to life than work, even when your work is saving lives. “You know, I'm constantly reminded that I've become so involved in the business of everyday activities that I've neglected my most precious sources of rejuvenation: my loved ones and my friends," Duke says in the video. “Love is work. It demands a commitment of your time.” 

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