James Henry “Red” Duke, Jr., surgeon, teacher, television host, and conservationist, son of James Henry Duke, Sr., and Helen Marion (Donegan) Duke, was born in Ennis, Texas, on November 16, 1928. He grew up in Hillsboro and was given the nickname “Red” for his curly red hair. As a youth, he delivered newspapers, picked cotton, and dug ditches, and he earned the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts. Duke graduated from Hillsboro High School and attended Texas A&M University in College Station, where he became head yell leader; he received a bachelor of science degree in 1950. Following his graduation, Duke served in the United States Army for two years as a tank commander in Germany during the Korean War.
After his military service, Duke attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. During this time he married Betty Cowden, a fellow student, and they eventually had four children—Hank, Rebecca, Sara, and Hallie. The couple later divorced. After Duke received a divinity degree in 1955, he was inspired to go into medical school by learning about humanitarian and physician Albert Schweitzer. He received his M. D. from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas in 1960. During his residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Duke was the emergency surgeon on hand to attend to President John F. Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally following their shooting (see KENNEDY ASSASINATION). He has been credited with saving Connally’s life.
Duke briefly served on the faculty of UT Southwestern and at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, where he also took graduate classes at Columbia University. In 1970 he was a visiting professor at Nangarhar University School of Medicine in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In 1972 Duke became one of the first faculty members at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and eventually became the John B. Holmes Professor of Clinical Sciences. He practiced in the Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston for four decades and established his reputation as an outstanding trauma surgeon. Duke established the trauma service at Memorial Hermann and in 1976 founded the Life Flight service—a model in the nation—in Houston. He was a founding member of the American Trauma Society and was influential in the development of EMS (Emergency Medical Services) in Texas.
Duke wore many hats during his lifetime; he was a surgeon, a teacher, and a colorful television personality. Duke appeared on nationally-syndicated television broadcasts called Dr. Red Duke’s Health Reports for fifteen years. He also hosted the PBS series Bodywatch in 1986. Known for his cowboy dress and country twang, Duke was called “John Wayne in scrubs” by U. S. Congressman Ted Poe and was the inspiration for the television series Buck James starring Dennis Weaver in 1987.
During his lifetime, Duke, a conservationist who had grown up hunting and fishing, served as president of the Wild Sheep Foundation, an organization dedicated to restoring wild sheep populations in North America, and the Boone and Crockett Club. He was also the founder of the Texas Bighorn Society, which tasks itself with restoring desert bighorn sheep to their native ranges in Texas.
Duke authored numerous chapters and gave many presentations during his career. He also devoted much time to support the United States military both through enhanced medical technology in combat and the promotion of employment of veterans at home through his Texas Medical Center’s Hiring Red, White & You! program. He received many honors during his lifetime, including the Texas Governor's EMS and Trauma Advisory Council's Journey of Excellence Award and knighthood in the Order of Saint George of the U.S. Cavalry and Armor Association. He was named Surgeon of the Year by the James F. Mitchell Foundation in 1988. The Boy Scouts honored him with their Distinguished Eagle Scout Award in 1993. The James H. “Red” Duke, Jr., M. D. Endowed Scholarship for students at UT Health Medical School was established in 2014. That same year the Dr. James “Red” Duke Elementary School opened in Alvin, Texas. Life Flight established a worldwide call sign—“Red Duke”—in his honor.
James Henry “Red” Duke, Jr., died of natural causes at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston on August 25, 2015. He was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. In a memoriam to Duke, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston described his “trademark bottle-brush mustache, military issued wire-rimmed glasses,” and “folksy humor” as characteristics that “made Duke a one-of-a-kind folk hero with the personality of an old-fashioned country doctor and the extraordinary talent of [a] modern-day surgeon.” In May 2016 the Memorial Hermann Health System renamed its Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute the Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute in his honor.