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In honor of Black History Month, in this blog post we’re featuring Prentiss Harrison, who, upon graduating from Duke’s program in 1968, was the first African American PA in the nation.
Harrison first heard of Duke’s fledging PA program while working as an operating room technician at the UNC Chapel Hill Hospital. Established in 1965, Duke’s program was a two-year course intended to train students to practice medicine and provide health care services under a doctor’s supervision, and was the first of its kind in the nation. Harrison, who had been trained as a medical corspman while serving in the Army, recognized that this new field could offer professional opportunity and advancement. He applied and was accepted into the second class.
The Medical Center Archives has a 2009 interview with Harrison that is part of our oral history collection. In it, Harrison looks back on his eventful and exceptionally varied 40-year career. In addition to working as a PA at Duke, Princeton, and Baylor, he also provided health care on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, established a clinic in Alaska for the local indigenous population, and later started his own clinic in Texas. He recounts treating AIDS patients during the 1980s, his interest in pain management, and the importance of entrepreneurship to his professional success. Reflecting on the excitement and challenges of being part of a new, burgeoning profession and the particular difficulties he faced as an African American PA, Harrison notes that, in the early years, "You had to create your own opportunity," but also makes a point to say, "I think I've had 40 years of fun."