November 21, 2022

Vanderbilt mourns loss of former Rheumatology director Thomas

James Ward “Tom” Thomas II, MD, former director of Vanderbilt’s Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, died Nov. 16 following a battle with cancer. He was 74.

James Ward “Tom” Thomas II, MD

James Ward “Tom” Thomas II, MD, former director of Vanderbilt’s Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, died Nov. 16 of cancer. He was 74.

“During the time he led the division, Tom was instrumental in growing the research and clinical capacity of Rheumatology and Immunology. He was a visionary leader, scholar and gentleman who embodied the best of VUMC,” said Leslie Crofford, MD, Wilson Family Professor of Medicine and chief of the Division of Rheumatology and Immunology.

Dr. Thomas was known as a kind, empathetic clinician and a dedicated scientist esteemed for his original contributions to understanding the immunologic basis of autoimmunity in Type I diabetes. Dr. Thomas’ research was supported by the NIH throughout his career, and his laboratory made seminal discoveries on the role of anti-insulin B lymphocytes in type I diabetes.

“Tom was the go-to person for all matters about Type 1 diabetes and B cell biology. He was also a humble and kind person with a calm demeanor. Always in a good mood, his optimistic view was often invaluable during scientific discussions. This is not to say that Tom did not have high scientific standards and expectations. He was a meticulous scientist and expected the same from his peers and trainees,” said Luc van Kaer, PhD, Elizabeth and John Shapiro Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

Jin Chen, PhD, professor of Medicine and Cell and Developmental Biology, recalled Dr. Thomas’ advice to “be bold and creative, make a scientific niche, and always keep trying.”

“Within 24 hours of his passing, the FDA approved teplizumab, an anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody, as the first drug with an indication to delay the onset of Type 1 diabetes,” said William Russell, MD, co-principal investigator with Dr. Thomas of the TrialNet Clinical Center at Vanderbilt. “Tom was instrumental in the Vanderbilt efforts to test the efficacy of this drug. Vanderbilt embraced this complex study and became the highest enrolling site in the entire network. Tom was involved from the first participant. He was a remarkable colleague, intellectually rigorous, and highly knowledgeable about the pathophysiology of Type 1 diabetes.

“The world took a step closer to life without Type 1 diabetes because of Tom,” Russell said.

His colleagues said Dr. Thomas was a mentor to students, post-doctoral fellows and colleagues, emphasizing scientific rigor, adventurous hypotheses and collaboration rather than competition.

“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,” said Rachel Bonami, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology and Immunology. “Tom was always eager to discuss our latest experiments and had incredible insight. I learned to listen carefully whenever he predicted a particular experimental outcome because he was nearly always right.”

One of his myriad outstanding qualities was his commitment to maintaining an “open-door” for colleagues as well as trainees. Even when the door was closed, he was open to the random drop-in, be it for sharing science and brainstorming, or for dealing with life, said Mark Boothby, MD, PhD, professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

“Even when interrupted, he was a model of generous politeness, and of sharing deep scholarship in rheumatology, immunology and diabetes.”

Dr. Thomas attended medical school at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, and his lifelong interest in immunology began there as a National Institutes of Medicine research trainee.

He completed his internal medicine internship at UT Memphis and his residency at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. To further his training in immunology, he applied to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was appointed a clinical associate physician in the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation, Bethesda, Maryland.

Following the NIH, Dr. Thomas was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship from the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation to continue immunology training in the Department of Pathology at Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, Washington University Medical Center.

His first faculty position was in rheumatology at Baylor College of Medicine, where he later became associate director of the Diabetes and Endocrinology Research Center.

Dr. Thomas and his wife, Geraldine (Gerry) Miller, MD, joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1990. In 1996 Dr. Thomas was named director of the Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, a position he would hold for 16 years.

He also played an active role in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, where he served for many years on the Graduate Education Committee that directs the PhD training program.

He served on numerous NIH panels related to rheumatologic autoimmune diseases, Type I diabetes, and as the chair of the NIH Tolerance, Transplantation, and Tumor Immunology Study Section. He also served on many Vanderbilt graduate student committees, helping to train the next generation of scientists.

In 2014, he was elected a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

Dr. Thomas is survived by his wife, Gerry Miller, and cousins in Alabama and Texas. Those wishing to make donations in his memory may consider his favorite charitable organizations — the Hooved Animal Humane Society, ASPCA, Mid-Cumberland Meals on Wheels and Special Olympics. No funeral services are planned.