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Colin G. Thomas, Jr., MD, Distinguished Visiting Professor

Dr. Colin G. Thomas, Jr. 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 continued to work in the Department—interviewing resident and faculty candidates and sharing his vast knowledge with his colleagues—right up to the age of 96. He passed away in 2014.