Faculty Spotlight: Margaret Humphreys, MD, PhD


Dr. Waite, Dr. Paat, Dr. Meredith, we know you are a few who remember Dr. Humphreys in her clinical practice with GIM. She’s still a member of our faculty. We believe everyone in our division will be impressed to know “the rest of the story.”

How long have you been at Duke?

I came to Duke in 1993, with a joint appointment in the History Department, the Medical School, and the division of GIM.  I practiced general internal medicine half time from July 1993 until Dec. 2001. I began in the old clinic at the Brownstone Hotel, across from Duke Hospital. Then I moved to the Pickett Road Clinic, the Roxboro Road clinic, and back to Pickett Road.

What were your clinical responsibilities within the division? When in the clinic, I taught a course in the History Department, usually a lecture twice a week. And saw patients 4 half days a week–usual primary care mix of physicals, acute care visits, and long term chronic care followups.  At times we had residents who did outpatient clinics with us, and I took my turn in their supervision.  Early in that time I “followed” my patients when they were admitted to the hospital, but soon that care was covered by a hospitalist.

Could you tell us how your medical background helps inform your profession in history and vice versa? I studied history first, receiving my PhD in the History of Science just as I started my medical training.  I see several influences from history.  First, I realize that medical ideas have changed remarkably over time, but that in any given period of medical practice, physicians were sure that they knew what was right and were providing their patients with the best care possible.  This tempered my reaction to teachers and colleagues who were equally sure that we alone in the modern age had a firm grasp on truth.  Even over the course of the past few decades the “truth” has shifted markedly.  History teaches modesty and skepticism.  Another lesson from my historical work is the importance of disease classification.  Many nineteenth century debates over the management of epidemic diseases turned on how the diseases were classified and understood.  Similar issues arise in fields like psychiatry today, where nosology is amorphous and treatment accordingly empiric.

Could you tell us more about your role as a researcher? I write on the history of epidemic disease and public health in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I have been particularly interested in the tropical diseases that prevailed in the subtropical American south — malaria, yellow fever, hookworm, and pellagra.  More recently I have studied the history of health and medicine in the American Civil War.  This work led me in turn to discovered a African American physician who practiced during that war, the subject of an ongoing biography.

How did you get into this field?As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, majoring in a great books program, I came across a book on the history of cholera in the 19th c U.S. Another course there introduced me to the history of evolution. I was fascinated, and decided to go to graduate school in the history of science and medicine.

How has your subject area changed?  My subject is inherently broad, and encompasses all I have done so far.

MH on Wheeler 2

Wheeler Mountain (Vermont), August 2015

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the division?  Hiking, walking. Reading broadly in literature, history, and themes of evolution and medicine.

Have you recently read any books, articles, blog posts or other material that would be of interest to the division?Check out Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.  On the role of fire in freeing early humans to do other things than chew.

What is a fun fact about you that people may not know? 
I’m considering a project on the history of hallucinations, which would combine my medical school research on the neurophysiology of sleep with the history of late nineteenth century spiritualism.

1 comment

    • Eve lausier on February 23, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Margaret, how nice to find you are still kicking around! And still smiling! Cheers!

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