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Dr. Gerald Thomson: A Lifetime in New York Medicine

By Michael Hyde

Dr. Thomson and artificial kidneys at Kings County Hospital in 1965.
Dr. Thomson and artificial kidneys at Kings County Hospital in 1965.
Dr. Gerald Thomson came to Columbia-Presbyterian as executive vice president and chief of staff in 1985, but that was not his first day at the hospital. He spent time at the medical center during the 1930s—not as a highly regarded physician or respected mentor, not as an accomplished administrator or formidable community advocate. Back then, in fact, he was just a baby.

“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-Presbyterian’s 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 Sonneborn’37 had a professorship named in his honor and requested Dr. Thomson as its chair.

Dr. Thomson giving Senate testimony in 1995 as president of the American College of Physicians
Dr. Thomson giving Senate testimony in 1995 as president of the American College of Physicians
After attending Queens College and graduating from Howard University’s College of Medicine, Dr. Thomson wanted to stay close to where he grew up and pursue “an old-fashioned rotating internship.” Downstate Medical Center-Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn offered the type of program he sought. Not only did he choose to continue in his studies at Downstate, he lived in the hospital with his wife, Dr. Carolyn Webber, for four years. The two met at Howard while waiting on line for registration. “I offered to carry her books home,” he says with a smile. “We’ve been carrying each other’s books ever since.”

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 Downstate’s 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.

Columbia recruited Dr. Thomson in 1970 to establish a renal program at Harlem Hospital. Columbia’s affiliate was fortunate to have Dr. Thomson bring his successful methods from the Downstate facility, because its program was being launched during needy times in Harlem.

“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 I’d run it for a year or two,” he recalls. “Fifteen years later I was still doing it.” During those years—when Harlem’s high disease and death rates made it one of the sickest communities in the country—Dr. 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 Harlem’s 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 city’s 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 stores—anywhere. 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 Association’s high blood pressure program.

Washington Heights
Dr. Thomson and Holly Phillips’00
In 1985 Dr. Thomson returned to his birthplace as Columbia Presbyterian’s chief medical officer and executive vice president for professional affairs. During this time, the Milstein Building and Allen Pavilion were built. Dr. Thomson directed the Ambulatory Care Network Corporation, opening its first four community primary care centers. Since 1991 Dr. Thomson has been in the P&S dean’s office, where he now serves as senior associate dean.

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 center’s 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 nation’s 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.

Dr. Thomson
“I don’t think I do things just to be the first,” Dr. Thomson says, downplaying the significance of his accomplishments. “To serve was an honor; to become head of the organization was a nice surprise.”

Over the years hundreds of residents and students have benefited from Dr. Thomson’s 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 students—the 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 one’s self.”

“He was one of the most important and influential people in my career,” says David Savage’74. 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. “He’s 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 Gurner’96. 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
Dr. Thomson and a group of third-year students, from left, Robert Hauptschein, Sue Kim, and Nicole Jeffrey
Dr. Thomson and a group of third-year students, from left, Robert Hauptschein, Sue Kim, and Nicole Jeffrey
have worked with Dr. Thomson as a P&S student. “From the beginning he was an accessible mentor, always there for us.

“He is a consummate clinician, with the most undeniable manifest diagnostic mastery and a tremendous bedside manner. He’s 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 profession—an 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.”

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