Wally Thomas passed away on 15 January at the age of 92. A graduate of Dalhousie University (class of 1945) and a former surgeon-lieutenant in the Canadian Navy, Wally led the Division of Laboratory Hematology at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) and the University of British Columbia from 1956 until his retirement in 1983. He then embraced his other interests, growing and hybridizing orchids and building sailboats, always accompanied by his Newfoundland dog. In 1999 he was chairman of the 16th World Orchid Conference held in Vancouver.
Wally unexpectedly became head of hematology shortly after his arrival in Vancouver, and over the next 25 years he was able to realize the vision he held for this new medical discipline. In doing so, he became the mentor of several generations of hematologists in BC. There was no consulting service at VGH when he arrived, so in the early days he not only managed the lab, but also made regular weekly rounds on the medical wards with his colleagues.
The specialty of hematology was in its infancy in the 1950s, but having trained at Hammersmith Hospital in London, England, under Sir John Dacie, Wally was well prepared to establish the routine hematology lab and the blood bank. Coagulation was an interest of his, and he introduced the basic tests for the diagnosis of hemophilia. In 1955 he recognized a case different from classical hemophilia (FVIII deficiency), and the patient was subsequently identified at Oxford to have Christmas disease (FIX deficiency).
By the early 1970s Wally had assembled the core group for a complex hematology program at VGH. This included a routine and special hematology diagnostic service, the blood transfusion service, and the immunology lab, which supported the new renal transplantation program. He then turned his interests to cellular immunology and its application to leukemia therapy.
Wally was an inclusive person who wanted to encourage collaboration and fellowship amongt hematologists in the Vancouver area. The weekly rounds he established were well attended for many years by those practising in the Lower Mainland.
As a friend of E. Donall Thomas, the Nobel laureate, Wally was invited to visit the original bone marrow transplant facility at the Hutchinson Centre in Seattle, and it was there that he saw the prototype of the early cell separator. Funds were raised, and soon the equipment was purchased and the single donor platelet and therapeutic apheresis unit was opened on East 6 in the Centennial Pavilion of VGH.
Over the years many of us were entertained in Wally’s office, surrounded by myriad old glass blood transfusion bottles and culture flasks. This was the germinal centre for the orchid business that was to flourish after his retirement.
Those of us who knew him well always appreciated the respect he showed to us and to our trainees. On many occasions he expressed wonderment at the amazing development of his chosen specialty in Vancouver and the rest of BC.
Wally is survived by his wife of 58 years, Dr Shirley Baker-Thomas, four children, and seven grandchildren. We fondly remember Wally as a fine leader and a dear friend.
—Jorge Denegri, MD
—George Gray, MD
—Jerry Growe, MD
—Shelly Naiman, MD
—Ted Reeve, MD