Fortieth Anniversary Reflections — By Merel H. Harmel, MD

My life has been a series of happenstances. The story of how I came to Duke in 1971 is no exception. In 1970, the American College of Surgeons was meeting in Chicago, where I was serving as chairman of the newly created Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Chicago. At that point in time, the thought of leaving Chicago had not occurred to me as it was a challenging and stimulating opportunity in an extraordinary intellectual environment. The thought had, however, occurred to my wife Armide, who had not been too happy in The Windy City.

Interestingly, it all began with a birthday celebration in honor of two former Hopkins surgeons, Drs. Mark Ravitch and Henry Bahnson. As a former member of the Hopkins Department of Surgery, I had been invited to attend along with Armide. At the party being held at the Playboy Club in Chicago, Armide encountered Dr. David Sabiston, Jr. the then chairman of the Duke Department of Surgery and an old friend from Hopkins. Sensing her displeasure with Chicago, Dr. Sabiston asked my wife if she would like to come to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She sent him over to me. We exchanged words, and before I knew it, I had agreed to meet with Dr. Sabiston and Dr. William Anlyan, the dean of medicine at Duke, the following morning at the Drake Hotel.

After a great deal of discussion and arranged visits to Durham, I accepted the invitation to become chairman of the new Department of Anesthesiology at Duke with Armide’s happy concurrence. The prospects at that time were somewhat bleak. There were only six faculty: Drs. Sarah Dent, Kenneth Hall, Patrick Breen, Jafar Sheikholisam, Ingeborg Talton, and Vartan Vartanian. There was no residency program, and little academic enterprise. Prior to my arrival, there were only 12 operating rooms. One can only imagine the stress on the surgeon and anesthesiologist coping with the limited operating space.

My job was to smooth this relationship over, recruit faculty, establish the residency program, and create an academic and research program worthy of Duke University. With my arrival and the opening of an additional six newly refurbished operating rooms, the spirit of Duke Anesthesiology underwent a dramatic change from an attitude of “we can’t” to “we can.” How providential!

Furthermore, with the appointment of a permanent chair, Dr. Charles Lanning, a resident in orthopedics, decided on a career change and became the first resident in the new department. Another early success was the appointment of Dr. David A. Davis, the former chair at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Dr. Douglas Blenkarn, also of UNC. Shortly thereafter came the appointment of Dr. Philip Lumb from Mt. Sinai in New York, who initiated our effort in critical care. Last but not least, the transfer of respiratory therapy and the hyperbaric chamber from surgery to anesthesiology proved most fortuitous. The hyperbaric chamber has served to attract a splendid cohort of residents and faculty who have become major contributors to the anesthetic and hyperbaric scene as scientists and leaders.

Thus, the department as we now know it began to take shape, and through its leaders in the past 40 years, Drs. W. David Watkins, Joseph “Jerry” Reves, and Mark F. Newman, it has mastered the field and taken its place as a force in Duke Medicine as well as nationally and internationally.