Dr. Gerald Thomson: A Lifetime in New York Medicine
By Michael Hyde
I was born in this hospital, Dr. Thomson recollects. At the time, my folks were living in Harlem, and when I was 3 we moved to Washington Heights on 159th and Amsterdam. Until I was 9 years old I received pediatric care right here at the Vanderbilt Clinic.
Because of his roots in Columbia-Presbyterians community, Dr. Thomson is literally a homegrown P&S member. It is no coincidence that highlights of his career have occurred in locations not far from where he spent his childhood. Young Gerald Thomson grew up in the surrounding neighborhood, and Dr. Gerald Thomson returned to the medical center as an adult, serving P&S as an accomplished and respected leader in the medical community.
Dr. Thomson joined the Columbia faculty in 1970, became professor of medicine in 1972, and was named Samuel Lambert Professor in 1980. He garnered his second named professorship in 1997 when Robert Sonneborn37 had a professorship named in his honor and requested Dr. Thomson as its chair.
While chief resident in 1963, he became interested in renal failure in pregnant women. He left to pursue a private practice, but found himself back after one year. He was asked to visit the facility to look at a pregnant patient with renal failure, but he wound up returning to the hospital for fellowship training and to set up Downstates kidney facility.
The use of the artificial kidney for chronic renal failure was new to the world of medicine and being developed at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dr. Thomson spent several months at the university and brought his expertise back to Downstate, where he established the largest dialysis unit in the East at that time.
He became deeply involved in this field, contributing to its literature and working with many area hospitals as they developed dialysis. In the early 1970s, he co-founded and became president of the New York Society of Nephrology.
Those days were very busy, Dr. Thomson says. Just a few months after he arrived at Harlem Hospital, its director of medicine, Dr. Charles Ragan, left to become chairman at P&S and Dr. Thomson was asked to succeed him. I said Id run it for a year or two, he recalls. Fifteen years later I was still doing it. During those yearswhen Harlems high disease and death rates made it one of the sickest communities in the countryDr. Thomson directed a medical service with 40 full-time faculty and more than 100 residents and fellows.
He found his struggle not only to be educating members of the Harlem community on their health, but also educating the medical community and policy-makers on the health of Harlem. Back then, to be an advocate you had to be an activist, he says. With all that need during the 70s, we were actually losing facilities and support.
Dr. Thomson fought loudly for Harlems medical needs and became a vigorous advocate for public hospitals in New York and other communities. He helped organize several hundred attending physicians from the citys municipal hospitals and led them in advocacy for more nursing staff and other support. His actions as a public health advocate might have irritated government and policy-makers at times, but he believed in his good motives.
Those years saw new national efforts to detect and treat hypertension, a condition prevalent in more than 30 percent of Harlem adults. We started checking blood pressure on street corners, in storesanywhere. We trained nurses to find and treat cases of hypertension, he says. He became focused on control of hypertension and served on numerous NIH panels and advisory committees, in addition to heading the New York Heart Associations high blood pressure program.
Although his work at Columbia kept him busy, Dr. Thomson remained heavily involved with national leadership in internal medicine and health care policy. When he was at Harlem, the American Board of Internal Medicine reviewed the centers programs for education. Apparently a positive impression was left: The certifying body asked Dr. Thomson to sit on the board, becoming only its third African-American member since its creation in the 30s. In 1990 he became chairman of the American Board of Internal Medicine, the first African-American in that role.
In 1995 the American College of Physicians, the nations largest specialty organization with more than 100,000 members, elected Dr. Thomson as its president. The first African-American to hold this position, he led the 85-year-old ACP during national health system reform efforts, which included working with congressional leaders and the White House and testifying before Congress.
Over the years hundreds of residents and students have benefited from Dr. Thomsons teaching. He has always been a valued instructor, receiving an Outstanding Teacher award from P&S in 1986. It is a real privilege to work with studentsthe highest privilege with medical students, he says. It is a calling. You must always tell the truth; it must be accurate and easy to understand. He describes mentoring new physicians as a method for extending ones self.
He was one of the most important and influential people in my career, says David Savage74. Dr. Savage, P&S associate professor of medicine, met Dr. Thomson in 1973 while an intern at Harlem Hospital. Dr. Thomson was his mentor at the time and the two have remained friends. Hes just an unusually fine person. He is knowledgeable in many areas, has exceptional moral sensibilities, and is committed to health care in the poor. He was a wonderful supervisor.
Dr. Thomson has been a consistent source of guidance and inspiration, says Deborah Gurner96. Dr. Gurner, who is working toward her Ph.D. in molecular biology by doing HIV research at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, is thankful to
He is a consummate clinician, with the most undeniable manifest diagnostic mastery and a tremendous bedside manner. Hes got a natural charisma, Dr. Gurner wrote in a two-page letter she submitted only hours after she was requested to describe him.
Dr. Thomson has been honored by numerous organizations, including recognition with an honorary fellowship from the College of Physicians of South Africa and recent election to the Institute of Medicine. He is proudest of his achievements related to minorities in medicine. In 1986, he helped found and later became president of the Association of Academic Minority Physicians. He also continues his efforts to increase the number of minority members entering the medical professionan agenda he has been following throughout his career. The nation needs more minority physicians in all areas of medicine, he says. There was a jump in the number of minority medical students in the 70s related to the civil rights movement, but the numbers have fallen recently. We still have a long way to go.