Posted 2:42 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022

John A. Thomas, ’56, professor emeritus, University of Texas. Thomas received the UWL Graff Distinguished Alumni Award in 1978.

Alum shares global experiences as medical educator, scientist

Editor’s note: This is an alumni profile by John A. Thomas, ’56, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas. In retirement, he serves as an adjunct professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Thomas received the UWL Graff Distinguished Alumni Award in 1978, as well as a distinguished alumni award from the University of Iowa. He is an elected foreign member of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and has received national and international awards in pharmacology and toxicology. Thomas is married to the former Barbara Ann (Fisler) Thomas, ’56. 

Upon returning to UWL after a stint in the U.S. Army, I completed my Bachelor of Science degree with the intention of matriculating in a physical therapy program. I was admitted to the P.T. program at the University of Iowa.

While enrolled in the P.T. program, I received my first real exposure to biomedical research. At the time, the sports medicine physician at the University of Iowa had an interest in knee injuries, particularly synovial fluids. Soon, I was comparing biochemical constituents obtained from traumatic knee injuries to those synovial fluids obtained from patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

There was an emerging research interest in the so-called rheumatoid factor (RF) present in synovial fluids. This research involved the development of diagnostic tests for RF. My work assignments not only included clinical chemistries pertaining to RF, but also routine tests for other muscular skeletal diseases.

With a pre-doctoral fellowship, I entered graduate school, where my interests in research were further enhanced and broadened. Taking additional advance courses in physiology and biochemistry widened my interests in how drugs or chemicals exerted their actions upon cells.

John A. Thomas, 56, visits government poppy fields in the Middle East in 1970.

After receiving my Ph.D., I was offered a position at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where I pursued other research projects, including the pharmacology of ‘anti-inflammatory’ steroids. While focusing on their metabolic actions on the liver, I also became interested in the so-called “19-norsteroids” (e.g. protein anabolic steroids and oral contraceptives).

Receiving a Foreign Travel Award from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics allowed me to attend the International Pharmacology Congress in Sao Paulo, Brazil. While visiting the nearby Butantan Institute (a research institute devoted to studying poisonous snake and lizard venoms), I met a professor from the West Virginia Medical Center (WVU) who invited me to visit the campus and present a seminar. Shortly thereafter, I was appointed a tenured professorship at WVU.

During the next two decades, my research was supported with major funding from the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Some of our research interests had shifted to the biology of the prostate gland. Subsequently, many of my pre- and post-doctoral fellows pursued research projects pertaining to cancer and benign prostatic hypertrophy.

I continued with my teaching obligations while maintaining a very active research laboratory. Along the way, I taught medical pharmacology to hundreds of future physicians and received three separate outstanding teaching awards. My professional network expanded exponentially, leading to many speaking engagements in Europe and Asia. Also, South America and Southeast Asia provided additional venues for professional outreach. Lectures or seminars, including topics on anabolic steroids and drugs derived from recombinant DNA, were presented to faculty and students at UWL.

Increasing medical school committee assignments, deanships and vice-presidential appointments led to diminished time for research and teaching. As vice president for Research and Development at a multi-national healthcare corporation, many of my administrative efforts were spent between corporate laboratories located in Brussels, Chicago and Tokyo.

John A. Thomas, ’56, and Barbara Ann (Fisler) Thomas, ’56, attend a 1974 social event in conjunction with the International Physiological Congress in New Delhi, India.

In 1988, I returned to academic medicine and received an appointment as professor and vice president at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. I was unable to maintain a laboratory, and it afforded less time to mentor graduate student research projects. Governmental regulatory duties also impinged on my research time. One unanticipated governmental assignment involved a top-secret Department of Defense project during the Vietnam War. Still other unrelated encounters brought me in contact with Russian scientists responsible for monitoring the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

During my long tenure in research, I was privileged to collaborate with many brilliant, young graduate students. These former graduate students embarked upon their own research careers and now hold professorial positions in U.S. medical schools. Without such collaborations, it would not have been possible to publish over 400 research articles, over a dozen research monographs and numerous textbooks.

My professional travels afforded the opportunity to visit over 50 foreign countries and municipalities.  International conferences took us to all parts of the globe. Our travels took us to the government-controlled poppy field in the deserts of southern Iran and to the illicit poppy fields in the remote mountains of northern Thailand.

I also traveled to WHO-sponsored meetings in India, an invitation to inspect pharmaceutical factories in China, a visiting professorship in the Middle East, and participating in several Russian Academy of Medical Science programs provided additional opportunities to expand my research horizon — horizons that I could never have imagined or accomplished without my excellent educational background from Midwest universities.

Thank you, UWL, for aiding in the first steps in this long journey.