University Letter

UND's faculty and staff newsletter

Remembering Dr. Neil Thomford

Dr. Neil R. Thomford, former chair and professor of surgery at UND, a surgeon and medical educator recruited to be surgery department chairman at the Medical College of Ohio, where he remained until he retired, died April 25 in the Manor at Perrysburg nursing facility. He was 91.

He had Alzheimer’s disease, his son Mark Thomford said.

Dr. Thomford retired in his early 70s as a professor of surgery and, according to a state online database, kept his Ohio medical license in force through September, 2005.

“He loved teaching. He made a career out of it,” his daughter Kim Thomford Eich said. “He did not leave the teaching for a private practice at any point.”

Mr. Thomford said: “He had plenty of opportunities to go on and take a bigger position at a bigger place.”

His fellowship in surgery early on at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., showed him the power of what a medical education could be, Ms. Eich said.

He started as a medical educator of students and residents in 1966 at Ohio State University, where he and his wife, Pamela, got to know Dr. Richard Ruppert and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Ruppert. Richard Ruppert became president of MCO in 1977. Three years later, the Rupperts encouraged the Thomfords to come to Toledo and Dr. Thomford to apply for the surgical department chairmanship, Ms. Eich said.

Dr. Thomford arrived at MCO from the University of North Dakota, where in 1975, he became the first full-time professor and chairman of the surgery department and, later, acting dean of the medical school.

He aspired at the still-new MCO to influence a curriculum and foster a surgery department “where medical students and residents would be attracted to come,” Ms. Eich said.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain, a now-retired surgeon and a member of the surgery department’s clinical faculty, recalled his colleague’s character.

“He really brought a lot of order and discipline and innovation to the department, but more than anything else, he was a decent and upright person,” said Dr. Hussain, a Blade columnist. “He dealt with colleagues [and] never made them get the impression he was bossing them. He was a colleague who happened to be the chairman. He was very articulate. The way he dealt with people was extraordinary.”

He was sensitive to the role of clinical faculty – those with a full-time practice who taught at the school.

“He was the first one as a chair to start to pay attention to those on the clinical side of the faculty and promote them when appropriate,” Dr. Hussain said. “He was very open in extending the research facilities to the clinical faculty.

“He was a very sensitive person. He identified value in people.”

During Dr. Thomford’s tenure as surgery department chairman, MCO Hospital developed its heart transplant program, which resulted in northwest Ohio’s first heart transplant operation, James Winkler, a former MCO director of communications, said by email.

In 1989, for the 25th anniversary of MCO’s establishment, academic department chairmen were asked to reflect on their department’s first 25 years in operation. The letters were opened on the 50th anniversary in 2014, said Mr. Winkler, an editor of the book, A Community of Scholars: Recollections of the Early Years of the Medical College of Ohio.

The letter dated Dec. 18, 1990, begins, “Dear Chairman of Surgery, Year 2014.”

Dr. Thomford charted the history of the department and the progress toward his goal of developing surgical subspecialty programs. The most valued accomplishment was excellence in undergraduate and graduate programs, with surgery leading all clinical disciplines in scores medical students attained on national board exams, he wrote.

The forebears of that 2014 surgery department recognized that “given the early stage of development of this institution, our responsibility has been to develop the patient care programs in order to provide the environment for excellence in education and the achievement of broad in-depth programs in research,” he wrote.

Dr. Thomford was a founding member of the Continental Surgical Club, begun in 1956 by colleagues who completed the Mayo Clinic’s surgical residency.

He was born July 22, 1931, to Beatrice and Orie Thomford in Red Wing, Minn., and grew up nearby in the farming community of Zumbrota, Minn. He was a 1947 graduate of Zumbrota High School and attended St. Olaf College in Northfield. He received a bachelor’s degree and his medical degree from the University of Minnesota.

In the Navy Medical Corps, his tour of duty took him from the Pacific Northwest to South Korea, Japan, and the Arctic.

A longtime outdoorsman, he hunted elk in Wyoming and steelhead trout and salmon in Wisconsin and Alaska. He took up golf in his 50s and was a member of the Toledo Country Club.

“He really enjoyed getting better at something. He really worked at it,” Mr. Thomford said. Over time he hit three holes-in-one.

He lived in Wood County’s Middleton Township, where he planted a large garden annually. He donated vegetables he grew to the Cherry Street Mission. In the 1980s, he took his family on vacations via motor home to explore the country. He enjoyed time spent with family in northwest Lower Michigan.

He’d been a member of Zoar Lutheran Church in Perrysburg.

Surviving are his wife, the former Pamela Southon Morris, whom he married Nov. 2, 1968; daughter, Kimberly Thomford Eich; sons Matthew Thomford, Todd Thomford, and Mark Thomford, and 12 twelve grandchildren.

Memorial services will be held later. Arrangements are by the Witzler-Shank-Walker Funeral Home, Perrysburg.

The family suggests tributes to the Alzheimer’s Association.