The Scholarly Surgeon

Dr. Colin “Tim” Thomas

 by Samar Sheth

             Walking through the halls of UNC usually to an educational conference or lecture, one faculty member, who has been here from the start, still dawns his black and white badge, Dr. Colin Thomas. As the Byah Thomason Doxey-Sanford distinguished professor of surgery and Chair Emeritus, Dr. Thomas has been recognized by numerous groups and won numerous awards, but the award that means the most was given to him in 1962 for his excellence in teaching. Teaching, to him, is the basis of his career and something that he is very proud to be a part of, and he continues to teach medical students on their surgery rotations. He does admit that students nowadays are better educated than those of the past but he feels that the quality of time between faculty and students has unfortunately decreased a great deal.

            His career is very storied and he has numerous anecdotes to offer not only to brighten ones day but to serve as a teaching points. His career started at the University of Chicago where he received his MD degree in 1943 and then  started his surgical training at the University of Iowa. After a stint with the Medical Corps in Army of the United States, he returned to the University of Iowa to complete his training and remained as an assistant professor of surgery. In 1952, UNC’s School of Medicine was converted from a 2 year to a 4 year curriculum under the direction of Dean W. Reece Berryhill. Dr. Thomas was  recruited by Dr. Nathan Womack, Chair of Surgery, to join the department. He had never been to UNC and remembers his flight to RDU very vividly. He recalls the plane stopped in Richmond VA, where everyone got off and he was the only person to fly to the middle of no where aka Raleigh-Durham NC. When he arrived at UNC he described the hospital as a pile of bricks coming out of the mud and he recalls having to walk a plank into the building. Never-the-less, he decided to accept the offer. Arriving in May of 1952, he lived in Glen Lennox as did many of the new faculty. During the initial 3-4 months when there were no patients or students, the time was used to develop a curriculum for the entering class of third year students. The hospital received its first patient on September 2, 1952.  At that time there were only 10 full time faculty in the entire department, and in his office, you can still see the picture of the original department.  He was recruited as a general and plastic surgeon. He politely chuckled that he never had formal training in plastics, he did however get a lot of experience while in the army. He said from the start, UNC was dedicated to teaching as well as providing quality clinical care. As time progressed his interest in endocrine and pediatric surgery also developed. He recalled applying what he had learned from Nobel Laureate, Dr. Charles Huggins about prostate cancer metastases being sensitive to testosterone, and hence orchiectomy being helpful in those situations where the cancer had metastasized. He thought that this should work for other endocrine glands as well, and realized that patients with metastatic papillary carcinoma of the thyroid could be treated with thyroid hormone .Studies in his laboratory demonstrated TSH receptors in well differentiated cancers of the thyroid.  Today this is still the standard of care. Dr. Thomas has had many challenging patients. He recalls two from 1965 vividly. He was involved in the first separation of conjoined-twins joined at the buttocks in a position best described as ischiopagus tetrapus. He was also involved in developing a new approach to rectal prolapse, one that did not require entry into the abdomen. His involvement in that case he called armchair reasoning, meaning that he theorized but someone else actually did the surgery. One of his most unusual patients that he recalls was a woman who would crawl under the bed every morning. After she was fed however, she would be fine. He realized that she probably had an insulinoma and he along with physiologist, Dr. John Hill, showed that intraoperative manipulation of the tumor could lower blood sugar and that its removal increased blood sugar. He also originated a new operation for jejunal atresia and short segment Hirschsprungs disease.

If you ask Dr. Thomas why he hasn’t retired yet, he will laugh and say “I love what I do, why would I stop?” He loves being around medical students and says he wants his teaching to be his legacy. Since 1989 he has served as the Surgical Liaison for AHEC, in order to remain involved with student education.  He also jokes that he likes being known as the oldest living surgeon on current faculty. His hobbies are many. While he used to play tennis and wind surf, he now enjoys sailing, walking, traveling, and particularly riverboat traveling, with his most recent trip being to the Amazon. He also used to keep bees, which was a rather unique hobby of his and a few other faculty members. However he developed a sensitivity to bee stings and has since ceased this practice. He and his family also enjoyed raising horses at their home on Morgan Creek. His current pastime is playing bridge. His partners are a retired chemist, retired physicist, and a retired orthopedic surgeon, and he admits to it being an interesting activity. Dr. Thomas, also a regular season ticket holder of Carolina Basketball tickets never misses a beat to cheer for the Tar Heels and was once named Tarheel of the week. While he no longer operates, he makes it to many of the surgery lectures and grand rounds. He also attends the DMS seminars and works with third year surgery students.  Dr. Thomas has been involved with the DMS since its very beginning. He finds it very stimulating and says it’s spirit of inquiry brings out the best in students.

            Asking various past DMS scholars or even faculty about Dr. Thomas, you can be assured of very similar responses. Words often used to describe him include gentle, scholarly, wonderful, student advocate, patient advocate, and excellence. All qualities that we at UNC’s School of Medicine aspire to have in ourselves and Dr. Thomas serves as the perfect role model. Do what you love and you can’t be stopped.