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Biographical entry Thompson, C James (1928 - 2008)

BS Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas 1946; MD University of Texas Medical Branch 1951; MA 1952; Hon FRCS 2000; FACS.

16 August 1928
San Antonio, Texas, USA
9 May 2008
Galveston, Texas, USA
General surgeon


Jim Thompson was an outstanding surgical scientist and educator, arguably without parallel in the latter half of the 20th century. His publications, almost all relating to gastrointestinal physiology, totalled nearly 1,000; he trained 131 research fellows and was the recipient of 265 visiting professorships. He was also a much loved 'character', who had a distinctive panache and style. One of his obituarists characterised him as 'colourful, outrageous, funny, bombastic, eloquent, sometimes inoffensively vulgar, charming, engaging and never dull'.

Thompson's early life was inauspicious. He was born to a relatively poor family, his father being the owner of a hardware store in the small town of Hebbronville, south Texas. Jim attended school in Hebbronville and at the age of 16 entered the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, where he graduated in just two years with a degree in science. In 1948 he entered medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. After one year he dropped out and worked fulltime as a laboratory assistant in order to earn sufficient funds to finance his continued education. He qualified in 1951 and, after a year of a rotating internship in Galveston, applied all over the country to obtain a residency in surgery, with a total lack of success. Eventually he was accepted as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania owing to a mistaken belief that he was the relative of a famous alumnus known to the chief of surgery! He never looked back.

After a year in the research lab he entered the clinical surgery residency programme, which he completed in 1959, after a two-year period of military service in Germany. In the Army he was classified as a physician rather than a surgeon and was assigned to a daily sick parade in which he saw soldier after soldier with gonorrhoea. As soldiers with venereal disease were at risk of demotion the good hearted Jim, while treating them appropriately, recorded in the notes they had laryngitis. The Army medical headquarters in Washington DC became alarmed at the apparent outbreak of laryngitis in Munich and sent a team to investigate, whereupon Jim's misdemeanours were uncovered. However, the inspectors were so impressed with his kindliness and ingenuity they covered up for him and no untoward consequences followed.

On finishing his residency, he moved to the Pennsylvania Hospital as an assistant surgeon, where he set up a surgical research laboratory and began his academic studies into gastrointestinal physiology. He quickly succeeded in getting grants from major agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an institution whose support was to continue for more than 40 years. His steady output of high class papers, mainly on the gastric antral inhibitory hormone, began to attract attention throughout the USA and perhaps it was no surprise when in 1963 he was recruited to the University of California Los Angeles-Harbor General Hospital, where he continued his research, becoming chief of surgery in 1967. In 1970 he was recruited by his alma mater, UTMB, to return as professor and chief of surgery. He remained there for the rest of his career.

Throughout his life his research focused on basic and applied gastrointestinal physiology and in particular the identification and function of GI hormones. He elucidated the physiological and pathological roles of several gut peptides, including gastrin, cholecystokinin, somatostatin, bombesin and neurotensin. He elucidated the role of these agents in neoplasia and in the mucosal adaptation that occurs in old age. Hundreds of papers in peer reviewed journals appeared over the years, together with some 120 book chapters. During this time he trained 131 research fellows in research techniques, as well as over 200 surgical residents in clinical surgery. He was an invited visiting professor in numerous institutions across the USA and also in Europe, India, Africa, South and Central America, and the Far East.

In addition to this exceedingly busy activity in Galveston, Jim Thompson also actively participated in the wider aspects of surgical life. He was elected to 56 US professional and scientific societies and became president of the Texas Surgical Society and later the Southern Surgical Association. He was elected to the presidency of six national organisations, including the American College of Surgeons and the American Surgical Association. He was on the editorial board of nine high impact journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine. Honours and awards were legion - the distinguished service award and the lifetime achievement award of the American College of Surgeons, the lifetime achievement award from the Society of University Surgeons, and honorary fellowships from 11 foreign countries were just some. Others that were especially treasured by Jim were the Golden Apple award for outstanding teaching, the Herman Barnett award for outstanding teaching of surgery, a merit award by the NIH, and honorary professor for life from the University of Beijing. He also particularly valued his election to the prestigious American Philosophical Society.

Outside of medicine Jim was highly cultured. He had a personal library of several thousand books and was well read in literature, art and music. He painted in watercolour, grew orchids and was devoted to his six children, seven grandchildren and long-time companion Bebe Jensen. The writer of this memoir was delighted to enjoy his stimulating company over many years and to admit him to the honorary fellowship of this College at the time of our bicentenary celebrations in 2000.

In his seventies Jim underwent three open-heart operations, the last of which caused complications, which were nearly fatal, but he recovered, only to develop disseminated prostate cancer, from which he died in May 2008, aged 79.

Sir Barry Jackson

Sources used to compile this entry: [Bulletin American College of Surgeons 2008, 93:42-45; Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 2010, 154:118-123; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England