Joyce Nichols began her work at Duke as a Licensed Practical Nurse, eventually serving on the Cardiac Care Unit of the Duke University Hospital for five years.
The Physician Assistant (PA) Program, the birthplace of the PA profession, originated at Duke in October 1965 under the direction of Dr. Eugene A. Stead Jr., then Chairman of the Department of Medicine in the Duke University School of Medicine. Ms. Nichols was in the third Physician Assistant class at Duke, a program that had been strictly attended by men. In 1970, she was the first woman and the first black women to graduate from the Duke Physician Assistant Program, making her officially the first African-American female PA anywhere.
After graduation as a PA, Joyce Nichols remained affiliated with the Duke University Medical Center, serving as a Clinical Instructor for the Department of Community and Family Medicine for fourteen years. She worked at Lincoln Community Health Center for twenty-three years and served as Chair of Lincoln's Board of Directors. She also started the first Rural Health Clinic in NC with the help of Dr. E. Harvey Estes, Jr., former Chair of Duke Community and Family Medicine. At the time of her retirement in 1995, she was managing the Diabetes and Hhypertension Clinics and providing primary care services to the homeless shelter in Durham.
In addition to being the first person of color to serve on the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), Ms. Nichols has served in many positions within the PA field and received several awards and certificates of appreciation including:
- AAPA Presidents Award and National PA Humanitarian Award (1996)
- Nancy Susan Reynolds Award (1991)
- Durham Chapter Continental Societies Award (1989)
- Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Duke University PA Program (1989)
- Charter member of the AAPA and the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants
- Organized the Minority Affairs Committee of the AAPA
- Treasurer of the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants
- Member, Board of Directors of the Durham County Hospital Corporation
In July 2020, the PA Foundation announced the launch of the Joyce Nichols Memorial Scholarship, a new scholarship to be awarded to Black PA students. Based upon the funding that was committed at the time of the announcement, a minimum of four $1,000 scholarships were to be awarded in 2020 and the next five years following.
Joyce Nichols passed away in 2012 at the age of 72.
This oral history interview was conducted with Joyce Nichols on October 31, 2006 by Jessica Roseberry.