Women’s History Month: The Legacy of Joyce Nichols

This Women’s History Month, PAEA reflects on the life, legacy, and works of Joyce Nichols, who was both the first woman and the first Black woman who received formal education as a PA and practiced as a PA.

Joyce Nichols, PA, and Steve Turnipseed, MPH, PA-C, during a Minority Affairs Committee meeting, 1975. Photo courtesy of Physician Assistant History Society

Nichols was a licensed practical nurse before moving on to the Cardiac Care Unit at Duke University Hospital for five years. In addition to being a pioneer as a PA, Nichols was also the first person of color to serve on the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA).

Nichols worked at Duke University Medical Center as a clinical instructor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine for 14 years. In addition, Nichols founded the first Rural Health Clinic in North Carolina in collaboration with Dr. E. Harvey Estes, Jr., former Chair of Duke Community and Family Medicine.

In 1995, she retired from managing the Diabetes and Hypertension Clinics and providing primary care services to the homeless shelter in Durham, N.C.

Nichols was 72 when she passed away in 2012.

Joyce Nichols was a leader whom we should celebrate and acknowledge beyond Women’s History Month. The gender and racial demographic breakdown of the 2022-2023 CASPA cycle reflects ongoing efforts to enhance diversity within the PA profession. As more women of color and individuals from marginalized communities pursue careers as PAs, they can draw strength from trailblazers like Nichols, who paved the way for us all.