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Duke’s 'Surgical Historian' Investigates Medical Mysteries

President John F. Kennedy in the motorcade where he was assassinated, with Texas Governor John Connally sitting in front of him.
Walt Cisco
Dallas Morning News
President John F. Kennedy riding down main sreet in Dallas, Texas, minutes before he was assasinated. He is accompanied by his wife, Jackie Kennedy, as well as Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie.

Americans know that on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Many people don’t know, however, that Texas Governor John Connally was riding in the same car as President Kennedy that day and was also hit by a bullet. He was seriously wounded, but he recovered. 

Dr. Theodore Pappaswanted to know more about what it was like for the medical professionals involved on that historic day, so he decided to interview a man who helped to save Gov. Connally’s life. That interview became the basis for one of Dr. Pappas’ several papers about the medical treatment of historic figures.

Pappas is vice dean for medical affairs at the Duke University School of Medicine, a distinguished professor of surgical innovation, and the chief of the Division of Advanced Oncologic and GI Surgery in the Department of Surgery at Duke. Those positions keep Dr. Pappas busy, but in his free time he investigates medical mysteries of the past and writes about how major political figures were treated by their doctors. He is known to many as Duke’s “surgical historian.” Guest host Anita Rao talks to Dr. Pappas about his hobby and about some of the medical stories that history forgot.

Interview Highlights

Dr. Theodore Pappas on why looking at historical events through a medical lens is important:
There's always an interesting issue that happens around these events. Lyndon Johnson was a great example. When the surgeons went to talk to Lyndon Johnson, his questions were not about the operation. They were about, “When am I going to be able to function as president again? When am I going to speak to the press?” Because scheduling the operation was going to be on a Friday, so he had two days to recover. On Monday he was ready to go. And that was very enlightening to me, learning what presidents are thinking about when they're doing things that you and I do every day, and we're thinking about how big is the incision. He didn't care about that. He wanted to know when he could function as president.

On how he judges each of the events he writes about:
Now we do later reflect on, “If it happened today would we do it the same?” … You have to figure out what they had available and how they used those [tools] to take care of that patient. And then the surrounding political and social events are always impactful and always interesting, which create real meaning to all of it, because we may have seen these events from one side and when you realize what was happening medically, you look at it from a totally different angle.

How writing these papers has changed his view of his role as a surgeon:
I think I'm always reminded that you have to stick to the usual rules, no matter what is swirling around and no matter what pressures you might feel from family or other situations. You have to basically deliver the goods, you've got to be the same doctor delivering the same standard of care. Obviously, emotionally you need to support the patient and family, but the actual care you deliver has to be the same based on the events you're seeing in front of you no matter what those other pressures are. It's not easy but that's what we have to do.


Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.