A memorial service will be held Saturday, July 14, for Harry L. Thomas, 99, a Philadelphia surgeon and teacher, who died Thursday, June 14, of lung cancer at his home in East Falls.
Dr. Thomas had a six-decade career in medicine, a profession his fellow 1939 Lincoln University graduates correctly said he would pursue.
“His college yearbook even then predicted he would be Dr. Harry Thomas someday, and he went on to fulfill that,” his friends wrote in a tribute.
Dr. Thomas worked during the 1950s at Mercy-Douglass Hospital before joining the staff at Medical College of Pennsylvania. Starting in 1964, he did surgery and taught while operating, said his friend and protégé Dr. Pam Scott.
“He was a meticulous surgeon, very tuned into detail,” Scott said. “He led by example, and how he interacted with his patients. He was always very kind to his patients, and his patients loved him.”
Born in Richmond, Va., to Delia and Harry Thomas, Dr. Thomas grew up in a household consisting of his mother, aunts, and grandfather. The family moved to North Philadelphia, and it was soon evident that the young boy was precocious – he entered Central High School in Philadelphia at age 12 and graduated with honors at 16.
“Harry once joked that he had to be smart and fast, being one of the youngest and shortest students in the school,” his friends, who banded together to care for him in his final illness, wrote in a tribute. His tremendous drive propelled him to excel not only in academics, but also in basketball, swimming and skiing.
He graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1946, at a time when few African Americans chose to become physicians, but he never discussed that. After medical school, he went on to an internship and residency at what is now Howard University Hospital in Washington.
While there, Dr. Thomas was mentored by Dr. Charles Drew, a pioneer in special methods of storing blood that saved lives during World War II.
In July 1946, Dr. Thomas enlisted in the Army to finish his residency at the U.S. Marine Hospital outside London. He was named chief of surgery before being honorably discharged in 1950.
Part of the allure of being in the military was the availability of small warplanes. He could hitch a ride with an airman to anywhere in Europe, he told friends.
“He would take full advantage of the trips to experience the culture, art, and local entertainment,” his friends said. On one trip across the British Channel, the plane had engine trouble and was forced to land in a field in France.
“Harry said that was more of an adventure than he signed up for, and was grateful when the next morning they were picked up in a new plane and returned safely back to base,” his friends recalled.
After his military service, Dr. Thomas married Betty Ann Coles. The couple raised two children in Mount Airy.
Dr. Thomas was considered a skilled diagnostician. “He was a surgeon before CAT scans and MRIs,” Scott said. He received numerous accolades but never discussed them, his friends said.
He stopped performing surgery at MCP in 1972, but continued teaching and seeing patients. Starting in 1988, he was a physician for the City of Philadelphia. He retired from the city job in 2013 at age 94.
Dr. Thomas followed a vigorous lifestyle, swimming several times a week for an hour until he was 97. He skied until he was 96. “He took care of himself, always exercised and ate well; there was nothing in excess,” Scott said.
One of his favorite times of day was martini time. He adhered to the 3 p.m. ritual until the day before he died, his friends said.
Dr. Thomas was preceded in death by his wife and a son, Harry C. Thomas. He is survived by daughter Harriet Sue Thomas; two grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
The memorial service will be at 11 a.m. at St. Vincent de Paul Church, 109 E. Price St. Burial is private.