James C. Thompson

By Barker, Clyde F. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2010 | Go to article overview

James C. Thompson


Barker, Clyde F., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


16 AUGUST 1928 * 9 MAY 2008

JAMES C. THOMPSON, one of surgery's leading scientists, edu, cators, and statesmen of the past half century, died at age seventy-nine in his home in Galveston, Texas, on 9 May 2008 of prostate cancer. From 1970 to 1995, he was professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, where he also served as professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.

His record of extended service to his institution and leadership in American surgery has rarely been matched. However, most would agree that it was Jim Thompson's personality, style, and sheer panache that made him a legendary figure. In a recent memoir written for the American College of Surgeons, Marshall Orloff characterized him as "colorful, outrageous, funny, bombastic, eloquent, sometimes inoffensively vulgar, charming, engaging and never dull." He was all that and more. Mark Ravitch, surgery's historian of the twentieth century, added that he was iconoclastic. Thompson's persona was so strong that it seemed perfectly natural when he occasionally shifted momentarily into a good-natured parody of the geheimrat with appropriate Sid Caesar-style German dialect. Being with him was always fun. He was like no other professor of surgery.

Although he was a proud Texan by birth and childhood and later, for twenty-five years as chairman at Galveston, a surgical leader of that state, Jim Thompson quite often said that his most important memories and loyalties were generated by the nine years he spent at the University of Pennsylvania. How this Texan came to consider himself a Philadelphian is best told in his own distinctive style as transcribed verbatim from a talk he gave at Jonathan Rhoads's eightieth birthday party. Jim said,

I came here [to Penn] entirely by accident. I am a great believer in planning, but the results of my life give it no substantiation. Everything that is worth a nickel to me was an accident. I had always wanted to be a surgeon, and when I was a senior medical student, I applied to the Mayo Clinic like everybody did in that part of the world, because that's where all the great surgeons came from. I was accepted the first week of December of my intern year. I later got a wire from the Mayo Clinic saying that they were having a terrible time replacing people going off to the Korean War so they'd decided not to take anybody who had not already fulfilled his military requirement and would I please do that and then they would be happy to have me. Well, I knew how to take orders so I sent away to the Air Force and got a great big application and filled it all out. On New Year's Day, it was sitting on my desk all filled out ready to go in and my daughter spilled a bottle of ink on it. I reflected on that . . . and thought that it was probably a message from God. So I quickly changed my plans and wrote everybody listed in the AMS directory asking for a residency. But, of course, everybody was filled by then. Dr. Ravdin [Penn's chairman], however, wrote back, wired back, and said, "We're filled! However, any descendant of the great James Thompson of Galveston is welcome in my program." That faced me with a moral dilemma. I was not related to James Thompson [unbeknownst to Jim, James E. Thompson was the founder many years earlier of the Department of Surgery at Jim's medical school, UTMB]. I reflected on that for some time, accepted the residency, waited six months, and told Dr. Ravdin. Nothing was ever said about this until the residency graduation banquet when Dr. Ravdin got up and announced that I had gotten into the program by subterfuge.

I'll have to say that everything that's ever been of any good to me intellectually or clinically or investigatively has come as a result of being here at Penn. I came from Hebbronville, Texas, and I went to [college at] Texas A&M and then to [medical school at] Galveston. I did not have any money at all, and I had to get into a medical school before I got drafted. …

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