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1932 – 2015

NORMAN W. THOMPSON, M.D., 1932 – 2015

The American Surgical Association mourns the recent death of Dr. Norman Winslow Thompson while celebrating his lasting contributions and meaningful impact on so many lives and careers. An exceptional surgeon, a revered colleague, and an inspirational teacher known the world over, Dr. Thompson leaves a legacy of remarkable surgical advances and a persistent inspiration for many of the world’s endocrine surgeons.

Norman Winslow Thompson was born July 12, 1926 and lived in New Jersey for much of his young life. Already interested in medicine, Norman graduated from Hope College in Holland, Michigan in 1953 and remained an ardent supporter of the school throughout his life – establishing a scholarship and a named lectureship with his wife Marcia (Hope College, class of 1956). He received the distinguished alumni award and served on the board of trustees for 15 years. He received his medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1957 and was recruited to stay on as an intern and surgical resident. Already a bright and capable young surgeon with clear promise, he was recruited to stay on as a faculty member in 1962. Since then, Norman and the University of Michigan have been indelibly linked. His early clinical and research career was diverse and encompassed trauma, general surgery, and vascular surgery as he practiced at both the Ann Arbor Veteran’s Administration Hospital and University Hospital. His intellect and surgical prowess were evident early in his career when he began to focus his expertise on surgical diseases of the endocrine glands. In fact, when Norman began his surgical career, endocrine surgery as a specialty did not even exist. At the time, a number of seminal discoveries regarding hormonal activity as well as functional imaging of tumors began to define the need for a surgical field devoted to the needs of endocrine patients. Understanding of hormone function was advancing rapidly, but the ability to measure many hormone levels was still being developed. Imaging of endocrine tumors was relatively rudimentary but making quantum leaps forward. Norman began his surgical career as a supreme collaborator and connector of people and concepts. Through interactions with multiple faculty members in nuclear medicine, endocrinology, and pathology, Norman began to make observations and advance the surgical care of many patients with endocrine tumors. In 1979, Dr. Thompson founded the very first division of endocrine surgery in the nation at the University of Michigan. His influence expanded exponentially throughout his career to have a truly global impact.

NWT was a master surgeon. Dr. Thompson went on to develop an internationally-recognized expertise in challenges such as thyroid cancer, hyperparathyroidism, adrenal tumors, and Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1. With the good fortune to work with many exceptional endocrinologists, radiologists, and nuclear medicine specialists at Michigan, his surgical work contributed fundamentally to the institution’s reputation for clinical excellence in treatment of complex endocrine problems. He was particularly known for his fine technical skill and his experientially intuitive intraoperative decision making in complex thyroid and parathyroid operations. In one of his greatest contributions, Dr. Thompson defined the key components of the gold standard operation for pancreatic and duodenal tumors of Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type I in an operation that still bears his name (the Thompson Procedure). This operation attributed to him very much represents the key qualities of the man – intrepid, precise, and optimistic. While he was known for his ability to skillfully illustrate a patient's endocrine problem in vivid anatomical detail, he was also a remarkably kind physician that appreciated the entirety of the patient. Dr. Thompson changed tens of thousands of patients’ lives for the better and he was able to create meaningful and lasting connections with many of them through his humanistic and caring manner. Through the generosity of the grateful family of one of his patients with secondary hyperparathyroidism, the Norman W. Thompson endowed professorship was established to recognize his remarkable impact.

NWT was a master surgical educator and was one of the most cherished surgical teachers at the University of Michigan. He had a remarkable ability to make complex concepts understandable and to make everything interesting and thought-provoking for his learners. He instilled autonomy in his trainees and his remarkable trust in his residents was invaluable to the development of over 250 chief residents in surgery. Norman also offered some of the earliest fellowship training experiences in endocrine surgery passing on his passions and talents to many of the most prominent thought leaders in endocrine surgery who have then anchored endocrine surgery programs in their own institutions. The Norman W. Thompson fellowship was formalized in 2005 and is supported by an endowment funded by many of his grateful trainees. Every student, resident, and fellow who had the opportunity to work with Dr. Thompson reflects back on their time together with wonder and affection. Norman inspired others throughout his entire career. He changed peoples’ minds, their careers, and their destinies in a subtle and gentle way – with a nimble intellect and the deft guiding hands of a surgeon.

His mentorship extended far beyond those who worked with him as medical students, residents, or fellows. Norm served as a career and clinical mentor for many of the global endocrine surgery community as well. Dr. Thompson’s ability to connect and inspire a global community of endocrine surgery was remarkable. Norman traveled tirelessly to share his experiences from the podium and in the operating room. Language and culture were never barriers to him as colleagues recognized his genuine approachability and interest in their experiences. Ever the expert, he was constantly learning from others and collected a large circle of deeply-devoted international friends.

With a small cadre of like-minded endocrine surgeons from around the world, Dr. Thompson helped to define a specialty field and create a collaborative and supportive endocrine surgical community that continues to grow to this day. By 1979, Norman had found a number of kindred spirits around the country and was central to the founding of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons. He hosted the first meeting in Ann Arbor and served as president for two successive years (1980-1982). The association has grown into one of the most vibrant surgical societies. Approximately 30 years later, he was awarded the Oliver Cope Meritorious Achievement Award. This prestigious award honors a member of the AAES for contributions in the field of endocrine surgery as an investigator, teacher and clinical surgeon. It is not an annual award but is to be given only occasionally to members of our Association who truly aspire to the spirit of the award. This was awarded to NWT in Atlanta in 2001. The AAES Foundation has established a NWT Fellows designation in their fundraising. As an indication of their respect and gratitude, over 28 members have committed $10,000 or more for the designation.

Norman and Marcia raised a wonderful family including their four children Karen, Susan, Jenni, and Dr. Robert Thompson. He was ex exceptionally proud of his grandchildren. NWT had a lifelong dedication to reading, travel, and fine wine. A true bon vivant, Norman was an exceptionally friendly, accessible, and humble person. NWT was a dedicated family man and a man who drank deeply from life. Normal Winslow Thompson died surrounded by family on November 17, 2015 It was easy to recognize Norman’s unique spirit of enthusiasm, curiosity, unflagging optimism, and the ability to see the best in a situation or a person at all times. Viewed by others as a giant in his field, he was an exceptionally humble man in the eyes of those who knew him well. He walked through life with both a sense of grace and a genuine feeling of gratitude rarely seen. When preparing for retirement, he was quoted as saying, “Don’t tell anyone, but I would have done this for nothing. I loved what I was doing. It just didn’t seem like work in many ways. Your patients are your reward.”

Dr. Norman W. Thompson leaves behind an unquestionable legacy in the countless people whose lives he improved. All are grateful for his life and his remarkable talents.