Dr. Ruby L. Wilson is recognized as a pioneering leader in the development of expanded graduate and clinical roles for registered nurses and in the development of the physician assistant concept. In 1957, she worked closely with Dr. Eugene Stead, Jr. and nursing educator, Thelma Ingles, at Duke University to establish the first master’s degree program designed to educate advanced clinical nurses. As Director of the Hanes Ward Project, established in 1961, Wilson managed an innovative nursing service that used a physician/nurse collaborative model to improve hospitalized patient care, with patients being admitted directly to registered nurses rather than physicians. In 1963, she became the first clinical nurse specialist at Duke, working in the Department of Medicine’s newly created Division of Nephrology, with faculty appointments in the School of Nursing and the School of Medicine. She helped establish Duke’s first dialysis unit and was directly responsible for patient care and for training former hospital corpsmen and medics recruited to work as patient care technicians in the unit with oversight of the registered nurses. At Stead’s request, she evaluated the capabilities of these individuals and affirmed that they could be admitted as suitable candidates for the physician assistant (PA) program that he established in 1965 with Wilson’s assistance. Stead sought Wilson’s advice and support in preliminary meetings to design the PA Program’s curriculum and to gain support for the PA concept from the medical and nursing staff at Duke University and her nursing education colleagues nationally.
As Dean of the Duke University School of Nursing from 1971 to 1984 and later as Assistant to the Chancellor for Health Affairs at the Duke University Medical Center, Wilson worked diligently to improve the working professional relationships between and among physicians, nurses and physician assistants. She was a champion for women’s rights and insisted that Stead accept women, in addition to men, into the newly created physician assistant program when he initially only deemed it for men. The number of women enrolled increased dramatically over time with eventually a woman, Justine Strand de Oliveria, being named Chief of the Duke PA Education Division in 2000.
Prior to coming to Duke in 1955, Wilson received her diploma in nursing from the Alleghany General Hospital located in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and a BS degree in Nursing Education from the University of Pittsburgh. Later, she obtained an MSN degree from Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing of Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) and a Doctor of Education degree from Duke University with a dual appointment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. For a brief period, she worked with the Rockefeller Foundation in Thailand to design a modern medical center with both new nursing and medical curriculums. Wilson has been elected to both the prestigious National Institute of Medicine (the only nurse from NC) and the American Academy of Nursing. She also served as a presidential appointee on the National Council of Nurse Training of the United States Public Health Service for over 10 years.
In 1971, she was appointed Dean of the School of Nursing, with full professorships in nursing and medicine, a position she maintained until 1984 when she also became Assistant to the Chancellor for Health Affairs. As Dean, Wilson re-established the graduate program of the School of Nursing and used her influence to retain the School of Nursing during a time of University financial cut-backs and retrenchment. Her honors are many, including being the first woman and faculty member of the Duke University Medical Center to receive the Duke University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service (2006). In 2007, the Ruby L. Wilson Professorship was established in her honor and in 2008 she received the inaugural Duke University School of Nursing Lifetime Achievement Award given only when merited by the Duke University Nursing Alumni Association. In 2009, Wilson was named a Living Legend by the American Academy of Nursing; the first nurse to receive this distinction. The University of Pittsburgh School Of Nursing honored her with its 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2018, the Duke University Nursing Alumni Association established a $200,000 scholarship in her honor; raising twice its original goal.
Wilson is not currently in an active position but continues, as Dean Emeritus, to provide advice and a historical perspective to the Duke University School of Nursing. She lives close to the Duke University Campus in Durham, NC.
Acknowledgments: This biography was prepared by Reginald Carter with the assistance of Dr. Wilson and submitted to the Society on August 15, 2018. The portrait photograph in the biography banner is courtesy of the Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC. The second photograph was taken during the Duke University PA Program’s 35th anniversary, and is part of the Reginald Carter Photographic Collection, Physician Assistant History Society, Johns Creek, GA. Information for this biography was extracted from online biographical information provided by the Duke University School of Nursing and Dr. Wilson’s oral history conducted by the DUMC Archives.