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Ralph W. Coonrad, M.D.

Posted By Hall-Wynne On April 15, 2019 @ 12:08 pm In Durham,News,Obituaries | 18 Comments

Ralph W. Coonrad, M.D., revered and beloved orthopaedic surgeon and Professor Emeritus, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, Duke University Medical Center, died at the age of 95 on April 10, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Dr. Coonrad or simply “Ralph”, “Rolf” or “Papa” as many of family, close friends and colleagues referred to him, leaves behind the legacy of a lifetime of major accomplishments in his profession, but beyond that and so near and dear to his heart, were the lifelong relationships he developed with so many and especially with his family whom he dearly loved. He served as a devoted mentor to so many talented and aspiring surgeons and colleagues alike as the role model of a consummate physician in his compassionate care, grace and humility, and he loved every opportunity to broaden those relationships with the occasional fishing or hunting trip.

A Celebration of Life for Dr. Coonrad will be held at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Friday, April 26, 2019 at 1:00 PM, with a reception to follow at Hope Valley Country Club. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to Westminster Church. In addition to his doctors and countless staff members at The Forest At Duke, Dr. Coonrad’s family wishes to express their profound gratitude to Maimouna Barrett for her exquisite and loving care.

Dr. Coonrad is survived by two daughters, Susan C. Cullen (Dennis) of Durham, North Carolina and Sally C. Carroll (David) of Charlottesville, Virginia, three grandchildren, Kevin W. Cullen (Holly) of Durham, North Carolina, M. Evelyn Carroll of Richmond, Virginia, and E. Ashley Carroll of Arlington, Virginia, and one great-grandchild, Grace V. Cullen of Durham, North Carolina. He is predeceased by his cherished wife of 49 years, Dr. Evelyn V. Coonrad.

Dr. Coonrad was born in Tsingtao, China, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, on September 10, 1923. He attended the Pyengyang Foreign School in North Korea and the Stony Brook School in New York before matriculating to Davidson College, where he earned varsity letters in football, wrestling, track and tennis. Dr. Coonrad then served for three years as a naval ensign during World War II, graduating from Duke University School of Medicine (Alpha Omega Alpha) in 1947. He completed a surgical internship and a residency in orthopaedics at Duke University Medical Center in 1953. His residency included a fellowship at the Warm Springs Foundation (founded in 1927 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) where he gained invaluable experience performing tendon transfers in poliomyelitis patients, which inspired his life long passion for pediatric orthopaedics.

Following his residency, Dr. Coonrad was stationed at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas for two years where he served as a Captain in the United States Army and Chief of Orthopedics and Hand Surgery. He operated on many US soldiers wounded during the Korean War, including one particular patient whose elbow, having been destroyed in combat, provided the inspiration for his future development of a total elbow joint replacement.

Dr. Coonrad returned to Durham in 1955 and entered the private practice of medicine. He was one of the founders of Triangle Orthopedic Associates, while simultaneously working throughout his career at Duke University Medical Center, first as an Assistant Clinical Professor, and later as an Associate Clinical Professor of the Division of Orthopedic Surgery. He was an attending staff member of Watts Hospital in Durham, and later Durham Regional Hospital, where he served as President of the Staff. He also served as a consultant in orthopaedic surgery to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Durham, an Associate Clinical Professor at UNC Memorial Hospital, and for 35 years, as a consultant to the United States Army and Womack Army Hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In addition to his full time practice, upon retirement of his mentor and cherished friend Dr. Lenox Baker, he became the medical director and chief surgeon of Lenox Baker Children’s Hospital at Duke, a position he held for 24 years.

Although Dr. Coonrad’s early surgical expertise was in surgery of the hand, he was also a pioneer in developing scoliosis surgery in North Carolina. After training in the early 1960’s with Dr. Paul Harrington of the Baylor School of Medicine, Houston, Texas, he became the first orthopaedist in North Carolina to treat scoliosis with the newly designed Harrington rods, and he also developed a school screening program for scoliosis throughout the state.

Dr. Coonrad was an inventor and designer of many surgical instruments and devices, however his most transformative design was for a total elbow joint replacement. In 1972, working alone in his garage using cadaver bones, he designed an elbow joint by whittling models from wood. Dr. Coonrad then worked with the Zimmer Company to produce the prototype in titanium. The “Coonrad Total Elbow”, and later the “Coonrad-Morrey Total Elbow System”, became the gold standard of elbow replacements for over 40 years.

Dr. Coonrad served as a member or chairman of numerous pivotal orthopaedics committees, including the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, American Shoulder and Elbow Society, Scoliosis Research Society, American Orthopaedic Society, and North Carolina Orthopaedic Association. Dr. Coonrad was also the recipient of numerous academic, scientific and research awards, including recognition by the Governor’s Council as North Carolina’s Outstanding Physician in 1971 and by the North Carolina Orthopaedic Association as the Outstanding Orthopaedic Surgeon in 1996, as well as receiving the Duke Orthopaedic Residency Award for excellence in education and teaching in 1994, and the inaugural Duke Master Orthopaedics Award in 2017.

A lasting monument to Dr. Coonrad’s faith, energy and vision, and the cornerstone of his and his family’s life, is Durham’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. Dr. Coonrad and his wife Evelyn were founding members of the church, and are recorded in the church register as members #0001 and #0002. Dr. Coonrad served as a deacon and elder of the church and regularly attended service until only a few weeks prior to his death.

His proudest moment in a lifetime of honors and accolades was his 1974 designation as Durham Father of the Year.

The Coonrad family is under the care of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service, Durham, NC. For online condolences, please visit www.hallwynne.com – select obits.

Condolences for the family of “Ralph W. Coonrad, M.D.”

Condolence from Elaine Moriarty RN on April 15th, 2019 2:04 pm

I knew Dr. Coonrad back in the 80’s when I worked at what was then called Durham County General Hospital. I had a great deal of respect for Dr. Coonrad. He always provided teaching moments and ne’er I heard a harsh word from him. Though he lived a full and remarkable life he will be missed. To his family I hope and trust you will find some comfort that he is now with his equally remarkable wife who I was blessed to work along side of at Durham County General Hospital.

Condolence from Bill Graham on April 16th, 2019 10:12 am

I was saddened to learn of the death of Dr. Coonrad. When I was Organist and Choir Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church, there wasn’t a Sunday or special event when Dr. Coonrad, or Mrs. Coonrad, would not speak to me and say something nice about the organ music or choral music or both. And when the NC Boys Choir (which I directed) sang, Dr. Coonrad made a point to speak to that group, or to boys individually. Many of them would often tell me “that nice man said nice things to me.” Of all the degrees and outstanding honors, I know of none greater than to be called “that nice man” by an 11 year old boy. Such graciousness. My thoughts, prayers, and sympathy.

Bill Graham
Former Organist-Director, Westminster Presbyterian Church


Condolence from Jill Pate on April 16th, 2019 10:51 am

Dr. Coonrad did my scoliosis surgery back in 1991; he was an excellent surgeon and had a great bedside manner. I am thankful to have gotten to know him during that time. I will keep your family in my thoughts and prayers.

Condolence from Mrs Billy Reynolds on April 16th, 2019 11:09 am

Our family will always be greatful
for Dr Conrad.
On April 1, 1956
Easter Sunday morning at 1:00 AM my then ex boyfriend and four other young men were in a terrible car wreck.
My boyfriend’s legs were mangled. Dr Conrad put him back together and saved his life.
Dr Conrad later told him that he would not be walking by age 40.
This man is now 83 and still walking very well thankfully.
My husband took Dr Coonrad’s
Obituary to our Son and told him
If it were not for this great Doctor
I would not be here nor you or your two sons and your sister.
He was truly a blessing to so very many, a life well lived in service God and others.
With sincere appreciation condolences.

Condolence from Teresa Davis Browning on April 16th, 2019 12:15 pm

Dr Coonrad was the sweetest soul any one I knew as a kid with scoliosis .He cared for me as his own child. By Gods grace and his care I was able to serve my Country in the Air Force Academy then active duty including Desert Storm , and Shield.
Rest in Gods Arms Dr Coonrad you deserve it.

Condolence from Steve and Dianne WIlson on April 16th, 2019 6:07 pm

When someone comes to your mind, you should visit them. In January of this year, after several attempts to call Ralph I took a moment, while in Durham, to stop by the Forest at Duke . I found him at lunch. He had not changed to my eye. His tie was tied just right and his jacket pressed and buttoned to the top. I was able to tell him jokingly I was a better quail shot than he was.

I have known Ralph ever since I had a memory. My father’s family grew up in Korea and my uncles attended Pyongyang Foreign School with Ralph. What a small world it is that he chose to return to Durham. He was a colleague of my father and me. I have dozens of Ralph and Evelyn stories as do all those who knew and loved him. One story that reveals his generous character goes back to 1980 when I was just out of the Army. I had rented a U-Haul truck to bring my few possessions to Durham and unload them at my new home in Bahama . As I turned down the long drive, who was waiting next to the house to help me unload. Not my family but Dr. Ralph Coonrad. My wife, Dianne, daughter, Allison and I feel so privileged to have known Ralph and Evelyn . His generosity, humility and skill will always be remembered.

Steve Wilson

Condolence from Jane Carden on April 16th, 2019 7:29 pm

I was one of his “lucky kids” 1963-1970 undergoing 12 surgeries to correct a hip deformity at birth. He continued to keep in touch and helped me make a good decision for another surgery in 2012. God bless him and may he forever Rest In Peace.

Condolence from Jane Ray Carden on April 16th, 2019 7:33 pm

I was one of his “lucky kids” 1963-1970 undergoing 12 surgeries to correct a hip deformity at birth. He continued to keep in touch and helped me make a good decision for another surgery in 2012. God bless him and may he forever Rest In Peace.

Condolence from Debbie Collins on April 16th, 2019 8:48 pm

This sweet man and skilled surgeon performed surgery for scoliosis on my then 11 year old daughter (he called her ‘little daughter’). I am sure he called many before her little daughter but he sure instilled confidence in this scared mama. I am grateful for his life and his expertise. I hope his family can find comfort in knowing he changed lives.

Condolence from Penny Toler Easom on April 17th, 2019 12:06 am

Sad to hear of Dr, Coonrad’s passing. I worked as a CRNA with him for 20 yrs. He was always a kind and gracious person. My condolences to the family.

Condolence from Richard Harper on April 17th, 2019 4:17 pm

Thank you Dr. Coonrad, for saving my wife from some of the ravages of polio when she was a child. Your skills allowed her to live a somewhat normal life. She always remembered you fondly. Rest well.

Condolence from Sue Garner on April 17th, 2019 7:58 pm

Cherish the 44 years I worked with Dr. Coonrad and have a fund of knowledge gained from my association with him. My tenure with him was not a job but a joy. He and his wife treated me like family. My sympathy is with his beloved family.

Condolence from Dawana Faye Daniel on April 18th, 2019 4:33 pm

To Dr Conrad’s Family,
I was a very young student nurse in the mid 1950’s. Dr Conrad was always had so much patience with us. During my Senior year I was assigned to the Orthopedic Ward. I have to add at that time I was only 5 Feet and 84 Pounds.
He must have seen something in my rotation because I was reassigned again. I love Orthopedics. However, when I was assigned again I made a trip to the Director of Nurses and reminded her we had State Boards in the near future and I was lacking in the surgery area.
She very sternly told me that this was not her decision. Dr Coonrad
and the Orthopedic Staff had requested me. I guess because of my size I could flip a polio patient better than anyone. He said he never felt it. This was due on my shift. They were trying to transfer him to a special facility but he was not ready. So by keeping me on Orthopedics he had a better chance. Dr Coonrad was nice enough to thank me. I never knew what happened because I had a Wedding to plan and lost contact with all the Doctors including his wife Dr Evelyn Coorad. She was a first female Doctor that I remember and admired.
After 14 years I changed from Nursing to teaching a Med Sci Class. I cannot name the times I used his teaching in my classroom. So his legacy has even been known in Versailles Kentucky
God Bless You I know you will miss him. He is now once again with his Evelyn.

Condolence from Carolyn Evans on April 21st, 2019 7:17 pm

I worked with Dr. Coorad for forty years at Watts and DRH. He was always very pleasant and had the greatest respect for his patients. To the family you could be so proud.

Condolence from Jim Ketch on April 22nd, 2019 9:31 am

I joined the UNC Department of Music faculty in the fall of 1977. My wife and I were living in an apartment complex in Durham and we were looking for a church. Our first stop was Westminster Presbyterian Church. We parked our car and as we walked toward the sanctuary, we were greeted by a couple – Ralph and Evelyn Coonrad. They were so kind and welcoming. WPC was the only church we ever visited. We have been members for over 40 years. Ralph was the elder for our daughter’s baptism. He would stop by our house from time to time to visit and share a sandwich. Ralph and Evelyn lived their faith each and every day. I give God thanks for the lives of Ralph and Evelyn Coonrad.

Jim Ketch

Condolence from Diane Kelly on April 22nd, 2019 1:56 pm

Dr. Coonrad was such a kind gentleman. As a single mother, I brought my very young children to Westminster in hopes of finding a local church family in 2003. We often sat in the rown in front of him and he always spoke to my daughters and smiled at their antics. It was a pleasure to know him. Having Holly, Kevin, and Grace at Westminster is a wonderful legacy.

Condolence from jean EBERDT on April 25th, 2019 12:32 pm

I will always remember sitting with you in church atWestminster when I first arrived in Durham.

Condolence from carol w lyndon on May 15th, 2019 12:36 pm

He saved my life. I was a teenager in 1966 and was not about to have this scoliosis operation! He was so kind and patient with stubborn me. He asked my mom what my favorite flower was. The next day he shows up in my hospital room the day before with gardenias ! I loved this man! God bless you Dr. Coonrad. Thank you for my life.

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