James Thomas Obituary, Death – Ward, James The former head of Vanderbilt’s Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, “Tom” Thomas II, MD, passed away on November 16 from cancer. He was 74. “Tom played a key role in expanding the research and clinical capabilities of Rheumatology and Immunology while he was the division’s leader. He embodied the best of VUMC and was a visionary leader, scholar, and gentleman, according to Leslie Crofford, MD, the division’s chief and the Wilson Family Professor of Medicine.
Dr. Thomas was respected for his original contributions to the understanding of the immunologic basis of autoimmunity in Type I diabetes. He was also known as a kind, compassionate clinician and committed scientist. Throughout his career, the NIH funded Dr. Thomas’ research, and his lab made important discoveries about the function of anti-insulin B lymphocytes in type I diabetes. “Tom was the expert on all issues relating to B cell biology and Type 1 diabetes.
He also had a calm demeanor and was humble and kind. His positive outlook, which was contagious, was frequently invaluable during scientific discussions. This is not to say that Tom didn’t have high expectations for himself in terms of science. According to Luc van Kaer, PhD, the Elizabeth and John Shapiro Professor of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology, “He was a meticulous scientist and expected the same from his peers and trainees.
Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology Jin Chen, PhD, recalled the words of wisdom from Dr. Thomas to “be bold and creative, make a scientific niche, and always keep trying.” Teplizumab, an anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody, was the first medication with an indication to postpone the onset of Type 1 diabetes, according to William Russell, MD, co-principal investigator with Dr. Thomas of the TrialNet Clinical Center at Vanderbilt.
Teplizumab received FDA approval within 24 hours of Dr. Thomas’s passing. “Tom played a key role in Vanderbilt’s efforts to test this medication’s effectiveness. The complex study was welcomed at Vanderbilt, which saw the highest network-wide enrollment. Tom was a part of it from the beginning. His intellectual rigor and depth of understanding of the pathophysiology of Type 1 diabetes made him a remarkable colleague.
Because of Tom, a step toward a world without Type 1 diabetes was made, according to Russell. Dr. Thomas was a mentor to students, post-doctoral fellows, and colleagues, according to his colleagues, emphasizing scientific rigor, risk-taking hypotheses, and cooperation over competition. According to Rachel Bonami, PhD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology and immunology, “He recognized the value in giving his trainees the freedom required to foster their independence, helping them grow their science intuition and love of science in the process.
“Tom had amazing insight and was always eager to talk about our most recent experiments. He was almost always correct, so I learned to pay close attention whenever he predicted an experimental result. His dedication to keeping a “open-door” policy for both colleagues and trainees was one of his many outstanding qualities. According to Mark Boothby, MD, PhD, professor of pathology, microbiology, and immunology, even when the door was closed, he was available to the uninvited visitor for conversation and brainstorming or just to talk about life.
He “was a model of generous politeness, sharing deep scholarship in rheumatology, immunology and diabetes even when interrupted.” As a National Institutes of Medicine research trainee while in medical school at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, Dr. Thomas developed a lifelong interest in immunology. He finished both his residency and his internal medicine internship at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
He applied to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further his immunology education, and after being accepted, he was hired as a clinical associate physician at the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation in Bethesda, Maryland. After leaving the NIH, Dr. Thomas received a post-doctoral fellowship from the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation to carry on his immunology training at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, Washington University Medical Center, in the Department of Pathology.
At Baylor College of Medicine, where he later rose to the position of associate director of the Diabetes and Endocrinology Research Center, he held his first faculty position in rheumatology. Geraldine (Gerry) Miller, MD, and Dr. Thomas joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1990. Dr. Thomas was appointed director of the Division of Rheumatology and Immunology in 1996 and served in that capacity for 16 years.
He was also actively involved in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology, where he was a longtime member of the committee overseeing graduate education and the PhD training program. He served as the chair of the NIH Tolerance, Transplantation, and Tumor Immunology Study Section and on numerous NIH panels discussing Type I diabetes, rheumatologic autoimmune diseases, and tolerance. He also participated in a number of graduate student committees at Vanderbilt, where he helped develop the next generation of scientists.
He was chosen as an American Association for the Advancement of Sciences fellow in 2014. Dr. Thomas leaves behind his wife Gerry Miller, as well as cousins in Texas and Alabama. His favorite charitable organizations, the Hooved Animal Humane Society, ASPCA, Mid-Cumberland Meals on Wheels, and Special Olympics, are welcome to receive donations in his honor. Funeral services are not scheduled.