Colin Gordon Thomas, Jr., internationally recognized surgeon, revered medical educator, outstanding scholar, pioneering research scientist, and devoted Tar Heel, died on September 2, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the age of 96.
Having joined the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in 1952, Dr. Thomas remained a member of the surgical faculty until his death, becoming one of longest-serving faculty member at UNC.
Deeply respected for his devotion to his students and colleagues and for his dedication to furthering medicine in the state of North Carolina, Dr. Thomas will be remembered for having made formative contributions to the excellence of the School of Medicine, to medical science and to the quality of health care in North Carolina, the nation and throughout the world.
Dr. Thomas was honored in 2012 for 60 years of continuous service to the University with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, bestowed by Governor Beverly Purdue for achievement and service to the state of North Carolina.
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A scholarly surgeon, known for his quick wit and incisive mind, Colin Gordon Thomas, Jr., known as “Tim,” was born in 1918 in Iowa City, Iowa to Eloise Kinzer Brainerd Thomas and Colin Gaudenz Thomas. He was raised in the eastern Iowa farm town of Monticello with a deep appreciation of the outdoor life, respect for farming and for horses, and the strong values of patience, understanding, generosity, and grace. Immediately recognizable in his white lab coat and his narrow bow ties, Dr. Thomas’ guiding belief “Carpe Diem” embodied his robust, seize-the-day, approach to life.
Dr. Thomas attended the Shattuck School in Faribault, Minnesota from 1932-1936, received his undergraduate education at the University of Chicago (1937-1940), where he remained for his medical education, being graduated in 1943.
Thomas followed three generations of his family into medicine: his father, Colin and aunt, Edna; his grandfather, John; and great-grandfather, Johannes. Tim Thomas served his internship and initial residency at the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City. In 1945, he joined the war effort as a lieutenant in the Medical Corps of the Army of the United States. He was stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky; Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky; O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Missouri; and Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He was discharged in 1947 with the rank of Captain and returned to Iowa City to complete his surgical residency.
Dr. Thomas began his academic career in 1950 as an Associate in Surgery at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. He was recuited two years later by Dr. Nathan Womack to the faculty in the Department of Surgery at the University of North Carolina where the medical school, once a two-year institution, had just become a four-year medical school. Dr. Thomas would recall that on his first visit to Chapel Hill in 1951, Raleigh-Durham Airport consisted of a Quonset hut. He made his way to the new North Carolina Memorial Hospital, which was then under construction, and rising out of North Carolina red clay.
Dr. Thomas was one of the first surgeons to perform an operation at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. As an Assistant Professor of Surgery in the School of Medicine, he was one of only 12 full-time faculty members in the department. These new Tar Heels, all of whom hailed from different areas of the nation, possessed qualities, Dr. Thomas had written, "could best be described as idealistic, imaginative, assertive in their quest for new knowledge, having insatiable curiosity and a healthy skepticism of prior truths and new dogmas."
Tim Thomas’ Socratic approach to both education and health care followed him to UNC Medical School. In Iowa City, he had developed an interest in both abdominal and pediatric surgery; at Chapel Hill, his responsibilities also included endocrine and gastro-intestinal specialties, and general surgery.
Fourteen years after joining the Department of Surgery, Dr. Thomas was named its Chair. He led the Department to unprecedented growth, fostering the emergence of several surgical divisions as world leaders in their fields of specialization. During his tenure, the Department of Surgery saw the initiation of a statewide trauma service, the creation of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, and important advances in the fields of cardiothoracic, orthopaedic, plastic, pediatric, vascular and general surgery, and in Urology, neurosurgery, and otolaryngology.
Upon stepping down from the position of Chair in 1984, Dr. Thomas was named Chief, Division of General Surgery at the School of Medicine. In 1989, he began serving the Department of Surgery on a restricted basis, meeting regularly with medical students about their patients, serving actively on faculty committees and, for 20 years, as the surgical liaison to AHEC, the statewide health education organization that provides advanced training to health professionals across North Carolina. Thomas’ devotion to continuing education led to participation in 32 continuing education forums around the nation and in 17 visiting professorships and invited lectureships.
Colin Gordon Thomas, Jr. was respected by his peers as a “surgeon’s surgeon," the epitome of the caring physician-scholar. His patients came from all walks of life and from all across the state of North Carolina. He was highly regarded for his abilities in the operating room and also in the assessment of what is in the best interests of the patient. “The individual that is regarded as a very good surgeon, he’s not in that category simply because he operates more rapidly or ties a knot more rapidly,” Thomas once said in an interview. “It’s the decisions that he makes as he goes along and the ability to recognize the goals of the operation and what’s important and what is unimportant in trying to achieve those goals.”
Among Thomas’ surgical achievements were the first successful separation of pelvically-conjoined twins. Other contributions include the development of a now-common procedure for correcting intestinal atresia in infants, devising a more effective method of repairing rectal prolapse, and engineering a new approach to the management of selected patients with Hirschsprung's Disease.
Dr. Thomas viewed teaching as his legacy. Of the many awards he received, the Professor Award bestowed by the students in the School of Medicine in 1962 was one of the most cherished. He continued to work with junior surgery students until his death.
Beyond his work as an educator and a physician, Dr. Thomas was internationally recognized for his medical research, particularly in the management of diseases of the thyroid. He developed advances which resulted in non-invasive treatment of carcinoma of the thyroid and established him as one of the world leaders in the field of endocrine surgery. The adjunctive treatment by suppressing the thyroid-stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland is now accepted as component therapy of the most common of thyroid cancers.
Dr. Thomas' research and medical advancements were published in 165 authored or co-authored scholarly articles. He authored or co-authored 26 book chapters in surgical texts; and co-wrote a history of the surgery department at the UNC School of Medicine.
He was named the Bayh Thomason Doxey-Sanford Doxey Professor of Surgery in 1961. He was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Chicago in 1982, named Tar Heel of the Week in 1983, received the Medical Alumni Distinguished Faculty Award from the University of North Carolina in 1984, the American College of Surgeons Distinguished Leadership Award, North Carolina Chapter, in 1990, and the H. Fleming Fuller Award for the University of North Carolina Hospitals in 1994.
In 1986, the Colin G. Thomas, Jr. Lecture in Surgical Endocrinology was established in his honor, and in 1994 the chairmanship of the Department of Surgery at the School of Medicine was endowed as the Colin G. Thomas, Jr., MD Distinguished Professorship of Surgery.
In 1989 came one of his most cherished honors, the invitation to deliver the Norma Berryhill Distinguished Lecture at the School of Medicine.
Dr. Thomas never lost his Iowa roots. He introduced his children to horseback riding, which he had enjoyed as a boy, and encouraged a love of the outdoors. He kept beehives and fruit trees. He was experienced with a power saw, and with a sledge and a wedge, skills which he particularly enjoyed applying to downed trees during hurricane season.
Dr. Thomas brought surgical precision and planning to myriad home improvement projects. When he moved his young family from the Glen Lennox apartments to a home not far from the hospital, he constructed a 17-step outdoor staircase, and an eight-foot long stone grill for the year-end shish-kabob party that he gave for departing residents. After becoming interested in the science of sailing, Dr. Thomas built a wooden Sunfish from a kit, and became an avid sailor of Flying Scots on Kerr Lake.
Dr. Thomas was a member of the Church of the Holy Family where he served on the Vestry. He was a member of the Tar Heel Golden Kiwanis, serving in 2005 as its president, and supported Habitat for Humanity. He loved tennis, and was an ardent bridge player, an interest he had developed at the University of Chicago.
Active in the nation’s prestigious professional medical societies, Dr. Thomas held memberships and positions of leaderships in Alpha Omega Alpha, American Association for Cancer Research, American Association for University Professors, American Association of Endocrine Surgeons, American College of Surgeons (Fellow), American College of Surgeons, North Carolina Chapter, American Surgical Association, American Thyroid Association, Collegium Internationale Chiurgiae Digestivae, Georgia Surgical Society, The Halsted Society, International Association for Endocrine Surgeons, North Carolina Surgical Association, Societe Internationale de Chirurgie, Society for Experimental Biology in Medicine, Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract, Society for Surgical Chairmen, Southeastern Surgical Congress, Southern Medical Association, Southern Surgical Association, and The Womack Society.
Dr. Thomas was pre-deceased by his wife Shirley Forbes Thomas, and is survived by daughters Karen Thomas of Washington, DC and Barbara Thomas and her husband Patrick Mortell of Chapel Hill; sons Jim Thomas and his wife Eve of Savannah, Georgia, and John Thomas and his wife Susan of Bethesda Maryland, and by grandchildren Jessica Mortell, Justin Mortell, Rachel Thomas and Lauren Thomas, and by two great-grandchildren. In the last decade, Dr. Thomas’ life was immeasurably enriched by the presence of his great friend and companion Jean Buckwalter, and her family.
Services will be held Monday, September 8th at 11am at the Church of the Holy Family, 200 Hayes Road, Chapel Hill, NC. Memorial contributions in honor of Dr. Thomas may be made to the Church of the Holy Family 200 Hayes Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27517), the Episcopal Church of the Advocate (8410 Merin Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27510), or to the Shirley Forbes Thomas-Colin G. Thomas Alumni Loyalty Fund Scholarship, in care of the Medical Foundation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (880 Martin Luther King Boulevard, Chapel Hill, NC, 27514).