Agents of Change: Portraits of Activism in the History of Duke Health (2023-2024)


As Duke approaches its centennial and engages in a university-wide project to illuminate its past and set goals for the future, what voices are being silenced and what stories are being left out? 

Institutional histories all too often limit their task to summarizing the accomplishments of past leaders and department chairs. Medicine, in particular, has a long history of celebrating “giants who roamed the halls” — larger-than-life physicians and scientists exemplifying nearly superhuman skills as clinicians, teachers and researchers. Less remembered are those figures whose voices challenged the status quo — individuals who (quietly or loudly) advocated on behalf of the excluded and powerless.

Duke Health has a rich legacy of such insider/outsider agents of change, many of whom came from underrepresented minority backgrounds. They range from Virginia Williams, a hospital food worker, who participated in the famous Royal Ice Cream sit-in in 1957, to the pediatricians Michael Nathan, who was killed while peaceably demonstrating in Greensboro in 1979, and Brenda Armstrong, a Duke student who participated in the 1969 Allen Building takeover and later become an influential Dean of Admissions for the School of Medicine.

These stories, while often left out of “official” institutional histories, are the ones that need to be collected, preserved and made accessible.

Project Description

This project team will create a digital collection of historical documents and oral histories highlighting the contributions of 15-20 underappreciated activists in the history of Duke Health. 

Building off of work and connections already forged by the Trent Center, team members will identify a variety of potential “change agents” from Duke Health and the Schools of Medicine and Nursing during the second half of the twentieth century. Team members will identify figures representing a variety of backgrounds and identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion) and a range of forms of activism, from radicals directly engaged in political and organizational work to reformers working within the constraints of the system. From this group, team members will select 12 historical figures whose stories will be explored further via oral histories.

All team members will be trained in oral history best practices, including consent, interviewing, ethics and documentation, and all interviews will be transcribed and preserved in the Duke University Medical Center Archives. 

Team members will curate materials for a project website and/or digital exhibit. Each interview will likely include a short biographical summary, photographs and highlighted quotations. Additionally, students will work together to create and curate a campus event featuring their work and announcing their website.

Anticipated Outputs

Oral history interviews; website featuring interviews, biographical blurbs, photographs, quotes and transcriptions; academic paper summarizing findings and modeling process for other academic health centers

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2-3 graduate/professional students and 6 undergraduate students from a range of backgrounds. The best applicants will have background and/or interests in history, public policy, social justice, health and the medical humanities/social sciences.

Students on the team will have the opportunity to meet and interview a group of fascinating historical figures who have impacted the trajectory of Duke Health; learn oral history skills; practice teamwork; and build a website and exhibit showcasing their work.

In Fall 2023, the team will meet on Wednesdays from 3:05 to 4:20 pm.


Fall 2023 – Spring 2024

  • Fall 2023: Engage in formal training in basic oral history skills; conduct archival research; learn history of Duke Hospital; identify figures of interest; conduct preliminary research and write biographical sketch; develop questions for interviewees
  • Spring 2024: Conduct interviews; transcribe and edit interview recordings; finalize website materials and construct website; prepare for and host public event


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters

This Team in the News

New Project Teams Will Delve Into Duke’s History to Mark the Centennial


Image: Sunrise at Duke Medicine Pavilion Circle, including the Cancer Center, Trent Learning Center and South Clinic, by Bill Snead/ Duke University

Sunrise at Duke Medicine Pavillion Circle, including the cancer center, Trent learning center, and south clinic.

Team Leaders

  • Jeffrey Baker, School of Medicine-Pediatrics
  • Rebecca Williams, Medical Center Library-Archives

/graduate Team Members

  • Jonathan Pyka, Masters of Public Policy
  • Sara Spicer, Medicine MD Third Year
  • Lucy Zheng, Medicine MD Third Year

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Destiny Holland, Earth and Climate Sciences (AB)
  • Ava Meigs
  • Chioma Okotcha
  • Fiorella Orozco, Biology (BS)
  • Caroline Overton, Cultural Anthropology (AB)
  • Anthony Zhao

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Russell Koonts, Medical Center Library
  • Robert Korstad, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Neil Prose, School of Medicine-Dermatology
  • Harris Solomon, Cultural Anthropology
  • Damon Tweedy, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Erin EC Campo, North Carolina State University