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50th Anniversary: Duke Hospital Chaplains

Photo courtesy of Divinity School Archives
  Pastoral Services staff in a 1960s photo, l to r: chaplains John Detweiler, the late Will Spong and Bob Claytor, with Director Wes Aitken.

They aren’t physicians, but between them Wes Aitken and Jim Travis represent a half-century of innovation in caring for patients and their families at Duke Hospital. Both men were honored last October during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of pastoral care at Duke.

Aitken left a United Methodist pastorate in 1956 to become a chaplain at Duke Hospital after Russell Dicks, professor of pastoral care at Duke Divinity School, urged the university’s trustees to create the position. Funding for Aitken’s part-time job came from the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church. Aitken went on to found the Chaplains Service, which later became the Department of Pastoral Services. He served as the first director and spent the next 31 years developing the department.


James L. Travis III, Ph.D., who became director when Aitken retired in 1987, served as director for 19 years and retired in January. Under Travis’ leadership, the program expanded to include two residencies in end-of-life care co-sponsored by the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life, and added “Partners in Caring,” a statewide community outreach initiative for HIV-positive patients.

Today the staff includes a director, associate director, five other senior chaplains, six chaplain residents, and between five and 10 chaplain interns each semester. During 2005, these chaplains made more than 15,000 visits with patients and families at Duke University Hospital and Medical Center.

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