Dr Eugene Stead of Duke University is often credited as the founder of the profession of physician assistant in modern times, with the introduction and accreditation of his training course at the same university in 1965.
Dr Stead was always quick to point out that the idea was not exclusively his. In fact from the 1930’s it had become increasingly the practice, especially within rural family health care surgeries of the southern United States, for the doctor to train “orderly” staff in additional duties as physician assistants, other than simply ushering patients to the appropriate rooms within the center. The social conditions of the day dictated the surgeries had separate entrances for black and white patients. Stead became aware of a Dr Amos Johnson who ran a family practice quite close to Atlanta in Garland, North Carolina.
Dr Johnson had a large rural family health practice which he ran with his wife. Due to the large number of patients he had to attend, his wife performed much of the administration work of the surgery. The building was designed to allow a front door for the whites, and a side door for the black patients. A central consulting room was flanked by seven further rooms, each equipped with a bed, where orderlies, not trained, and therefore not considered to be physician assistants, brought the patients to be seen by Dr Johnson. Once he had completed his round, Dr Johnson would call all the patients together for a communal consultation. Here each patient was given their prognosis and instructions. During this consultation, the local pharmacist was listening on the telephone to the prescriptions, so that when each patient arrived at the chemist shop, their medication was ready and waiting.
A major concern for Dr Johnson, was that he had no time to keep up to date with medical advances, or to visit conferences and universities to further his desire to see family practice receive greater recognition and better more focused training. He employed, in 1940, a high school graduate by the name of Henry Treadwell to help look after the children while their parents were in consultation, and to perform some other organizational tasks.
Treadwell had an open and inquiring mind, and soon learned under Dr Johnson and his wife’s tutelage, to perform many of the tasks relating to both the clinic, and the patients.
Treadwell was able to make early diagnosis, take and process blood tests, perform sutures, and run the practice. He became a lifelong friend of the Johnson family, and the prototype for the modern physician assistant. He was bestowed an honorary certificate as a physician assistant in the 1960, in recognition of his work. Further to his everyday work within the healthcare center set up by Dr Johnson and his wife, Treadwell even became involved in training medical students who were sent down by the university to study with Dr Johnson.
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