Natalie Holt (1973- ) was an undergraduate at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, studying the history of early 20th century United States medicine when she first learned of the concept of the physician assistant. One day while wandering the library, she came across a book entitled The Physician’s Assistant: Today and Tomorrow written by Alfred Sadler, Blair Sadler, and Ann Bliss. The topic of the book, together with the fact that it had been written by a doctor, a lawyer, and a nurse intrigued her — so much so that she decided to make it the topic of her senior Honors Thesis (1995). She later published the thesis in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine under the title “Confusion’s Masterpiece: The Development of the Physician Assistant Profession.”1
A pre-med student at the time, Dr. Holt was particularly intrigued by the often overt gender tension evident in some of the early articles on the physician assistant profession. She wanted to learn the “inside story” of one of the earliest physician assistant programs and chose to investigate the first formal education program for physician assistants established at Duke University in 1965. Dr. Holt reached out to the Director of the Duke University Medical Center Archives, Dr. James Gifford, who in turn put her in touch with Eugene A. Stead, Jr., M.D., considered the founder of the physician assistant profession and Chief of the Department of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine from 1947 through 1967. Using money obtained from a Ford Foundation Research Grant, Dr. Holt flew to North Carolina to examine the archived records of Dr. Stead, as well as Dr. E. Harvey Estes, the physician in charge of the physician assistant program through most of the 1970s and 1980s, and Dr. Ruby Wilson, a nurse educator and later Dean of the School of Nursing at Duke. Dr. Holt met with Dr. Stead for part of her research and she learned first-hand how the physician assistant profession was born at Duke. Dr. Stead also shared with Dr. Holt his support of nurse educators such as Thelma Ingles.
At Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, Dr. Holt had access to the archival papers of Dr. Hildegard Peplau, a prominent nursing theorist and President of the American Nurses’ Association from 1970 to 1972. In both her private memoranda and written articles, Dr. Holt identified Dr. Peplau’s staunch reluctance to endorse the physician assistant profession as an avenue for the professional development of nurses.
Dr. Holt is a graduate of Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore. MD. After finishing a surgical internship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, Dr. Holt completed dual residencies in general preventive medicine at Johns Hopkins University and anesthesiology at the Yale School of Medicine. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology at Yale School of Medicine. She practices anesthesia at the West Haven Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Haven, CT where she works alongside physician assistants, nurse anesthetists, and nurse practitioners. She remains interested in the history of medicine and the continued growth and development of the physician assistant profession.
Acknowledgments: This bio was prepared by Natalie Holt MD, MPH, with the editorial assistance of Alfred M. Sadler, Jr., MD.
1Holt N. “‘Confusion’s Masterpiece’: The Development of the Physician Assistant Profession.” Bull Hist Med 1998; 72(2):246-78.