Dr. Caroline Thomas, 93, tracked health of Hopkins medical graduating classes

December 15, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF Research assistant Paul McCardell provided information for this article.

Dr. Caroline Bedell Thomas, an indefatigable medical detective whose work monitoring the health of 17 graduating classes of Johns Hopkins medical school graduates continues today, died yesterday after a long illness at Roland Park Place in Baltimore. She was 93.

Defying conventional medical thinking, Dr. Thomas began a wide-ranging study on medical students at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who graduated from 1948 through 1964.

"She was way ahead of her time," said Dr. Michael J. Klag, chief of the Hopkins Precursor Study, the name for her work. Collecting and tracking data on biological, psychological and other variables, he said, allowed the medical community to detect risk factors for disease linked to blood pressure and smoking.

Valuable research data continues to be gleaned from the former students -- now an average age of 65 -- who are working, primarily as physicians, around the world. The clues from that data base have also helped predict heart disease, suicide and cancer.

Another of Dr. Thomas' legacies: More than 130 scientific and medical manuscripts have been published from the study's information.

For Dr. Thomas B. Turner, dean of the School of Medicine from 1957 to 1968, Dr. Thomas symbolized a researcher and clinician "held in very high regard by all of us. In the 1940s, she had to contend with a great deal of peer indifference while she carried on her great work."

Dr. Thomas also discovered that the drug sulfanilamide could interrupt and prevent rheumatic heart disease and other infections, such as meningitis and scarlet fever. It was a discovery she stumbled upon in 1936 while working with mice.

Dr. Thomas, who retired from Hopkins in 1985, was the recipient of the prestigious James D. Bruce Memorial Award in 1957 for her work in preventive medicine.

Dr. Thomas, however, was nearly prevented from making her important contributions to medicine.

While in medical training, she used a monocular scope and experienced severe headaches and vision problems. An international authority on ophthalmology advised her to give up, believing that her vision problem could not be cured.


Cause of problem

But according to Hopkins literature, a friend recommended she see William H. Wilmer, a professor of ophthalmology at Hopkins.

He discovered the cause of her vision problems and corrected it with eye exercises. Wilmer himself was to became a pioneer; a clinic is named in his honor at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Those who knew Dr. Thomas said she did not shy away from adversity.

"There was nothing that could make her quit," said Evelyn Severn, a research assistant who worked for Dr. Thomas for 18 years.

"She got mugged twice near the hospital, but that never bothered her," said Severn. "If it snowed, she often was the only person who made it into work. And once someone found a dead rat in the restroom, and people were very upset; Dr. Thomas went right in there and threw the rat out."

Severn said Dr. Thomas did enjoy lighter moments -- such as when she scrambled the nameplates in front of offices at Hopkins, and visitors "walked around scratching their heads."

An essay by Dr. Thomas, "Stamina, The Threat Of Life" characterized her resolute work habits and professional determination, former colleagues said.

"She told me a story once that people in the '40s took a dim view of her being a mother of three, working the hours she did and having a nurse tend to her children," said Dr. Klag.

Sharp response

To a question about her parenting skills during a party, Dr. Thomas snapped to a curious guest, " 'Some mothers drink; I work,' " Dr. Klug said.

A native of Ithaca, N.Y., she graduated from Smith College in 1925 and earned her medical degree from Hopkins in 1930. She received an honorary doctor of science degree in 1955.

Dr. Thomas, a professor of medicine emeritus, was a member of numerous professional organizations. In her retirement, she enjoyed the quiet life of the retirement residence where she had lived since 1984.

"We both arrived at Roland Park Place that year, and she became my best friend," said Charlotte Skinner, 92.

"She had lots of friends and loved to play bridge," Mrs. Skinner said. "But in the backs of our minds we knew what she had done. What great respect we had for her because of it."

Dr. Thomas also helped a former assistant at Hopkins, Katherine Lewis, transcribe letters she exchanged with her husband who was serving in the Pacific during World War II.

"She stopped her work in 1995," Lewis said. "She was the most proud of her work on the precursor study, something she knew would be respected because of its longevity and long-reaching results."

A memorial service is planned next month at Hopkins.

Her husband, Dr. Henry M. Thomas Jr., died in 1966.

Survivors include two daughters, Mary Whitall Thomas Clevenger of Owings and Eleanor Cary Thomas of Washington; a son, Dr. Henry M. Thomas III, of Hastings-On-Hudson, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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