Oral Histories from the Archives: Dr. Grace Kerby

Dr. Grace Kerby, Class PhotoThe DUMC Archives has a large collection of oral histories documenting the medical center’s history. In this post, we’re highlighting three that were conducted with individuals who worked with Dr. Grace Kerby. Kerby, who first came to Duke in 1940 as a research assistant in the Department of Pathology, is notable for a few “Duke firsts.” In 1946 she was the first female chief resident in the Department of Medicine, and in 1964 she became the first female full professor in the department. Additionally, from 1965 to 1971 she was the chief of the Division of Rheumatic and Genetic Disease in the Department of Medicine, the first female to become a division chief in the department.

The Archives is fortunate to have multiple documented recollections of Dr. Kerby. Her secretary, Rebecca Clayton, recalled what she was like to work for, while Dr. James Wyngaarden’s interview focuses on Dr. Kerby’s contributions to Duke. The interview with mentee Dr. Grace McCarty highlights Kerby’s professional accomplishments and provides rare insight into her personal life and interests.

All three remember Kerby as hard working, meticulous, and respected by all who knew her. Her organizational skills and ability to smoothly manage the schedules of the house staff, interns, and residents were so impressive that Clayton called her “a computer before they had computers.” In her oral history, Dr. McCarty noted that after Dr. Kerby retired, Dr. William Stead wrote a small computer program to try to schedule house staff, and later commented, “Dr. Kerby did a more accurate and better job of scheduling all the rotations and vacations with her spreadsheet by hand than I did with a computer program."

Grace Kerby Lab NotesDuring her career, Dr. Kerby taught classes, worked with patients, and did research. The latter, however, was what first brought to her Duke. In Dr. Wyngaarden’s oral history, he recalled that Kerby had been working in microbiology at Johns Hopkins when she was recruited to Duke. She had been asked to reproduce the findings of a study that was set to be published in a prominent journal. (To the left is a page from Kerby's 1940 lab notes, which may be related to this early study she conducted.) He remembered:

"She could not confirm this work. Then they cultured the laboratory where original work was done, and found the laboratory to be contaminated with that bug, so the tissues were brought to a laboratory that was infected, not the other way around. The work was never published, and Duke's reputation was saved!"

To learn more about Dr. Grace Kerby and read or listen to these oral histories, visit the section dedicated to her of our Women in Duke Medicine digital exhibit. You can view the finding aid for the Oral History Collection on the Archives website, and read our earlier blog post featuring Dr. Ivan Brown's oral history on 65th General Hospital.

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