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Honoring a Pioneer: Eugene A. Stead, Jr., MD

Dr. Eugene SteadEugene A. Stead, Jr., MD is recognized as the "Father" of the PA profession. Dr. Stead was born near Atlanta, Georgia on October 6, 1908. October 6th would, incidentally, also become the graduation day of the first class of PAs and the official date of National PA day. One of five children, Dr. Stead helped his father as a child, selling patent medicines door-to-door in Atlanta neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods were poor, and he was intrigued by the effects of poverty. As a boy, he noticed that poverty had two effects on people - either they were consumed by it or they rose to the challenge of overcoming it. He would later apply these same observations to different patterns of behavior among patients. Eugene A. Stead, Jr., MD received both his undergraduate and graduate education at Emory University, and in 1942, he became the youngest person to chair the Department of Medicine at his prestigious alma mater. In 1946, he was named Dean of the School of Medicine at Emory, but he left a year later to accept a position as Professor of Medicine and Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Duke University. It was the patient, not the illness that most fascinated Dr. Stead. When his residents and he came across a complicated medical case they could not solve, Dr. Stead was often heard to say “What the patient needs is a doctor.” He often reminded his young learners that “A doctor makes a mistake if he thinks he knows more about a patient than the patient does himself.” Eugene A. Stead, Jr., MD firmly believed that it was possible to meet many patient needs without the time and cost overhead of a traditional medical education, and in 1965, Dr. Stead established the first U.S. Physician Assistant Program at Duke University with ex-military corpsmen. "We started the first PA Program with four students, all veterans . . . we had to have people who could stand their ground," stated Dr. Stead in PA Profession in Review: A Founder's Perspective, "Nurses and physicians at Duke Hospital were not overly enthusiastic about our idea. It was not easy to become a PA in those days." Over the course of his lifetime, Dr. Eugene Stead watched the PA profession grow from a small few struggling against criticism to a thriving and respected role within the medical community. He attributed a great deal of this success to the determination and ambition of the PAs themselves and felt that opportunities for Physician Assistants would only continue to grow. "PAs sought and found the opportunity to see people in a way that nobody else but a doctor had ever envisioned. PAs have the ability to take that and parlay it into all kinds of ventures in business, industry, and law," concluded Dr. Stead, "All that remains is for each PA to seize the opportunity." Eugene A. Stead, Jr., MD remained an advocate for positive change within the medical industry until he passed away on June 12, 2005 at the age of 96.