Prentiss L. Harrison, PA, the nation’s first African-American physician assistant and a 1968 graduate of the Duke Physician Assistant Program, passed away Dec. 11, 2018, at the age of 75. Harrison is widely recognized as a pioneer of the PA profession and for his strong passion for providing health care to the medically underserved. The American Academy of Physician Assistants' African Heritage Caucus recognized him for his part in pioneering the profession, and he was also instrumental in educating African-American physicians about the PA concept.
“By becoming the first African-American PA, Prentiss Harrison opened doors for people of color that allowed them to turn dreams into reality,” said Jacqueline S. Barnett, DHSc, MSHS, PA-C, Duke PA program director and associate professor of community and family medicine.
Harrison enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in Texas and served as a medical corpsman, spending most of his enlistment in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. After military service, he completed the Operating Room Technician Program at UNC-Chapel Hill and worked at the University of North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. He later was accepted into the second class of the Duke Physician Assistant Program. After graduating from the program in 1968, he worked full time at Duke University Hospital in neonatology and part time at Lincoln Hospital, which primarily served Durham’s African-American community. He subsequently staffed one of the first satellite rural health clinics in the country, a joint project of Duke and Lincoln Hospitals.
Harrison left Duke to work at the Princeton University Student Health Service. He was the first PA to work in New Jersey and worked there for five years before the New Jersey Medical Board of Examiners barred him from further practice in the state, as there was not yet enabling legislation for PAs. He then worked for the U.S. Public Health Service, Indian Health Service, Fort Berthold Sioux Indian Reservation in New Town, North Dakota, providing primary medical care to the Sioux Indian population of Twin Buttes. Harrison also worked in Mountain Village, Alaska, for the Lower Yukon Health Association.
Harrison later returned to Texas, accepting a position and faculty appointment at Baylor College of Medicine, Ben Taub General Hospital. He was the first PA to receive hospital privileges at Ben Taub and he worked directly under the chief of general medicine. He subsequently transferred to Baylor’s Thomas Street Clinic, the largest AIDS clinic in the city, and also worked at Riverside Hospital admitting patients for substance abuse treatment and medical inpatient services. Harrison later went on to own and be the chief operation officer of two clinics — I-10 Family Clinic in Houston, Texas, which was established in 2003, and the Trinity Valley Medical Clinic in Liberty, Texas, which opened in 2008. He was named Distinguished Alumnus of the Duke PA program in 2009. In recent months, Harrison moved back to North Carolina to be closer to family.
A celebration of life will be held at 12 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, at Albright Funeral Home, 500 S. Salem St., Apex, with visitation beginning at 11:30 a.m. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to be sent to White Oak Foundation, Inc., 1621 White Oak Church Road, Apex, NC, 27253 "in honor of Prentiss Lee Harrison."
Read Harrison's bio on the PA History Society website.