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Dr. Thomas
Dr. Thomas

Pioneering Pathologist Remembered for Perseverance, Compassion

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

William C. Thomas, Jr., a pioneering pathologist and 2012 recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor, has died at age 87. A resident of Wilmette, Ill., Dr. Thomas grew up in Uniontown, Pa., and became one of the first African Americans to join the U.S. Marine Corps nearly 70 years ago. Despite growing up during an era of segregation, he overcame many obstacles to achieve his dream of becoming a pathologist.

“My father never forgot about the kindness that several people displayed in reaching across racial borders during the 1950s to help him along his journey to become a pathologist. He tried to repay those favors in the way that he lived his life—through kindness, gentleness, and generosity, especially towards the less fortunate among us.”
— John Thomas

In 2012, when he was too frail to travel to Washington, D.C, to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, members of the U.S. Marines came to him to his home to present him with the award. Dr. Thomas was part of a group of African American, known as the Montford Point Marines, who were being recognized for integrating the Marine Corps in 1942.

According to an Oct. 17 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dr. Thomas was quoted in his family history as saying that his father “always told me that no matter what the barrier, I could be whatever I wanted.”

Some of his high school teachers discouraged him from pursuing his dream to become a physician. “They thought it was more realistic that he pursue a career in auto mechanics,” recalls his wife, Betty.

Yet, he did have the opportunity to play quarterback on the high school football team when the Native American football coach encouraged him to try out.

Dr. Thomas enlisted in the Marines in 1945. In that era, the white Marines trained at Camp Lejeune, N.C., while the African American marines trained at Montford Point, now Camp Johnson. Later, he was sent to Guam where he was stationed as a rigger on a troop ship.

Upon returning home, he attended Springfield College, in Springfield, Mass., where he earned a bachelor of science degree. After earning his medical degree in 1955 from Boston University Medical School, he interned at Detroit Receiving Hospital, in Detroit. While in Detroit, he met his future wife, Betty Driessen.

Dr. Thomas completed his residency at Henry Ford Hospital, in Detroit, and practiced at Michael Reese Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital, in Chicago, where here held the position of Vice Chairman of Pathology.

“My father never forgot about the kindness that several people displayed in reaching across racial borders during the 1950s to help him along his journey to become a pathologist,” says his son, John. “He tried to repay those favors in the way that he lived his life—through kindness, gentleness, and generosity, especially towards the less fortunate among us.”

In addition to his wife, Betty, he is survived by two sons, John (Diane), and Chris, and his three beloved grandchildren, Shannon, Colin, and Shelby.


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