The Dr. William C. Thomas Jr. Award
Dr. Robert Slaton, a local internal medicine physician and others to recognize those who take care of the elder population in Gainesville created a yearly event called, “The Affair to Remember.” It is an annual event to educate, honor and recognize those people who care for persons with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The main award is the William C. Thomas, Jr. award for expertise, research, and the care of folks with Alzheimer’s disease.
About Dr. Thomas
William C. (“Billy”) Thomas Jr, MD, concluded his arduous journey with Alzheimer’s disease Christmas day, 2010. He will be sorely missed by many. He had an indelible influence on an enormous number of persons – students, physicians, and patients.
He was born in April 7, 1919, in Bartow, Georgia, into a medical family; his father, W.C. Thomas Sr, was a quintessential southern general practitioner. The senior Dr. Thomas moved his practice to Gainesville, Florida, and Billy was educated in Gainesville. The University of Florida did not have a medical school at that time, so Billy received his MD degree from Cornell Medical School. He served as an Army physician in Guam. Immediately after World War II, he returned to Gainesville, married his beloved wife, Brenda, and set up his practice of internal medicine.
After several years of private practice, he pursued endocrinology training at Johns Hopkins under the great John Eager Howard; this would prove to be a unique pairing of personalities of enormous importance. At Hopkins he became very interested in endocrinology, particularly in metabolism, penultimately in calcium metabolism, and ultimately in renal stones—his lifelong research interest in stone formation resulted in his impressive laboratory and clinical publications.
When he finished his endocrinology training at Hopkins in 1957, he returned to Gainesville and its nascent medical school at the University of Florida. The bulk of the original faculty of the Department of Medicine came from Hopkins and Duke. Billy was the first (and then only) endocrinologist.
He rapidly established himself as a master teacher. It was quickly realized that his expertise was not limited to renal stones, endocrinology, or even internal medicine. He was a consummate diagnostician and could extract a detailed and meaningful history from patients with whom all other physicians had failed. As a medical student at the University of Florida, a few years after Dr. Thomas’ arrival, I can still clearly recall the first session of what we now call Introduction to Clinical Medicine at which he appeared on a stage with a young patient whom he had never met. While my class listened, he executed a masterful history and, in fact, deduced the correct diagnosis contemporaneously. The fact that I can remember this event so clearly today, a half century later, illustrates the impact he had, not only on me, but on countless medical students, housestaff, and colleagues.
His teaching style was interesting, rigorous, challenging, and, (unfortunately in my opinion) one which is rapidly fading from the contemporary scene. He was gruff. He demanded excellence from his students and received it, employing what now some would regard as intimidation or belittlement. I would differ. He simply wanted to determine how much one knew, and his endpoint was usually when a student was forced to say, “Dr. Thomas, I don’t know.” With some students, that could be very early in the grilling, but reaching one’s endpoint was inevitable, even for the smartest in the class. I never saw him belittle anyone in what one might call an inappropriate setting; the grilling was always limited to contemporaries, and would befall all students and houseofficers who were at the University of Florida at that time. He was widely referred to by students behind his back (but we now know he knew all along of this moniker) as “Billy Barracuda,” a name that was lovingly applied to him as any student or houseofficer who was around Dr. Thomas quickly learned that, although his methods were direct and at times intimidating, such was his method of teaching and demonstrating his expectations in the students’ performances. He was actually one of the kindest and fairest, if not one of the most brilliant, physicians and diagnosticians I have known. He was always gentle with the patient and family; in fact, I remember at the above-mentioned initial lecture in Introduction to Clinical Medicine how relaxed and at ease the young patient became on the stage despite the presence of a large number of students while his personal history was being taken by “Billy Barracuda.”
I had the fortune of receiving hematology training at Johns Hopkins in the early 1970s. Being a reasonable diagnostician, I can remember when my jaw dropped within seconds after first encountering John Eager Howard; I knew instantaneously from whom Billy Barracuda had honed his traits! They were no less a tag-team than Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, or Stiller and Meara. Dr. Howard was elected into the ACCA in 1946, served as its president in 1973, and died in 1985. He saw to it that his understudy, Billy, was elected into the Climatological in 1963. Dr. Thomas served as president of the Climatological in 1992.
Brenda was not only Billy’s wife but his exact yin-yang counterpart; this allowed them, as a pair, to properly function and move within higher social circles such as the ACCA. I would forcefully argue that Billy and Brenda as a pair served the combined social and medical goals of the ACCA as well as any other couple. Brenda brought a grace, sociability, and elan commensurate with her being raised in a diplomat’s family. They were always master host and hostess in the ACCA, but particularly when meetings were held at their beloved home in Ponte Vedra, Florida, where they were hosts and representatives also for Florida. As a pair, they were instrumental in the design and implementation of the stylish ACCA pin denoting present and past presidents and spouses of the Climatological used to this day.
Dr. Thomas’ dominating influence at the University of Florida was self-evident, but nowhere more important than at the Gainesville Veterans Administration Medical Center, literally adjacent to the University of Florida Medical School. Dr. Thomas sequentially served all the important positions at the Gainesville VAMC – director of Research Service, Chief of the Medical Service, and Chief of Staff. All of those positions were greatly facilitated by the expertise and fluidity by which he conjoined the goals, missions, and capabilities of the VAMC to those of the University of Florida. These efforts culminated with the Gainesville VAMC securing one of the first Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Centers (GRECCs) in the nation. It has long been accepted that the “marriage” between the University of Florida and Gainesville VAMC is one the strongest in the nation. This union has served everyone well, but especially our patients and students.
Dr. Thomas was an excellent physician, consummate teacher, brilliant scientist, and compassionate human being. We can all use his example to each reach for our highest goals in the manner that Billy Thomas would have desired.