Dr. Alvin Jerome Thompson was an African American, an accomplished physician, a dedicated volunteer for many causes, and a man of varied talents and interests. He moved to Seattle in 1953, with his wife Faye and three children, to work as a gastroenterologist at the city's Veterans Hospital. Two more children would soon be added to the family. Dr. Thompson went on to build a successful private practice, and later in his career established the gastroenterology and internal medicine lab at Providence Hospital. As a local, state, and national leader in medicine, he worked ceaselessly to ensure that equal access to quality health care was recognized as a right, not a privilege. Dr. Thompson was a clinical professor at the University of Washington Medical School, where he also pushed for the admission of African American students and served as a valued mentor to young physicians of all races. He was a doctor, teacher, mentor, poet, singer, sailor, community activist, and family man, and the last survivor of a small cadre of African American physicians who defied the odds and built successful lives and careers in the Northwest before the full bloom of the Civil Rights Era.
Family and Education
Alvin Thompson was born on April 5, 1924, in Washington, D.C., to Victor Justin Thompson and Aurelia Pinchot Thompson. It was a family of some accomplishment; his father was an attorney, and his paternal grandfather, a black Danish citizen born in Christiansted, Virgin Islands, was also an attorney and had sat on the city council in Annapolis, Maryland. On his mother's side, Thompson's grandfather had served in the North Carolina General Assembly in the late 1890s.
Throughout his education, from elementary school through undergraduate and medical school, Thompson attended all-black institutions in Washington, D.C., starting with Lovejoy and Monroe grade schools, then Johnny Patterson Junior High School and Dunbar High School. AS an undergraduate at historically black Howard University, he focused his studies on chemistry and math with the goal of becoming a chemical engineer. At the urging of his mother, he switched to medicine, earning his M.D. degree from Howard in 1946.
After graduation, Dr. Thompson wanted to leave his home town and its oppressive racial segregation. He applied for 100 internships at hospitals across the country, but was accepted only at three traditionally black institutions. He chose Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, the largest such facility in the nation. After completing his internship there, Dr. Thompson tried to broaden his professional experience by transferring to another hospital for the last two years of his residency. Once again race stood in his path, and his applications were rejected.
As it turned out, the experience he gained at Homer G. Phillips Hospital was invaluable, and he learned a great deal about gastrointestinal radiology there. He also was able to follow a patient's treatment from beginning to end -- taking and reading x-rays at the outset, performing endoscopies, assisting surgeons when an operation was necessary, even performing autopsies when all treatments had failed. But racism in the profession was still strong, and Dr. Thompson regretted his inability to build professional alliances through meetings and consultations with other, non-black specialists in his field.
Marriage and the Military
In 1950, the last year of his residency in St. Louis, Dr. Thompson married Jewel Faye Grindle, and a year later he entered active duty with the air force. Papers were drawn up to send him to Iceland, but his orders were changed and he was assigned to Puerto Rico instead. He later learned that it was American policy at the time to not send black military personnel to Iceland.
This was far from Dr. Thompson's first military experience. He had been a student Lieutenant Colonel in Junior ROTC at Dunbar High School in 1940, and later that year was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. Although not expressly prohibited, blacks were not made welcome at Annapolis, and Thompson did not attend. The first African American would not graduate from the academy until 1949, after President Harry Truman's order the previous year that desegregated the military.
Undaunted, Thompson enrolled in the ROTC program at Howard University, serving from 1940 to 1943. From 1943 to 1946 he was the commanding officer of the school's Army Specialized Training Program for medical, dental, and engineering students. After earning his M.D. in 1946, Dr. Thompson was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the army reserve. He transferred to the air force for active duty, was promoted to captain, and became chief of medical services at Ramey Air Force Base Hospital in Puerto Rico. His military service would extend for many more years; after his return from Puerto Rico he served as a major in the air force reserve until 1959.
Dr. Thompson's time in Puerto Rico also proved to be a very valuable experience. He was chief of medical services at the 250-bed base hospital and the only black medical officer on base. It was his first extended exposure to white people in a professional capacity, and working closely with them helped him recognize and overcome his own prejudices, built up over years of facing racial discrimination. Despite his heavy responsibilities, he also somehow found time to study for his board-certification exams in internal medicine, which he passed in 1952.
Settling in Seattle
Dr. Thompson was determined to escape the segregation he had experienced in Washington, D.C., and had long had a desire to live in Brazil. But his experience in Puerto Rico, where there was no middle class and the vast numbers of poor were ill-treated, changed his mind about living in a Latin country. Once he and Faye made the decision to stay in the United States, they read Inside USA by John Gunther, decided that Seattle sounded like a good place to settle, and started making plans to move to the Northwest.
In 1953, Thompson was hired by the Veterans Administration's regional office in Seattle to work in its Beacon Hill hospital. He and Faye by then had their first three children -- Michael Clifton (b. 1951), Donna Lynn (b. 1952), and Kevin Jerome (b. 1953). When the young family first arrived, they moved temporarily into the Olympic Hotel while looking for more permanent arrangements.
Facing Discrimination, Again
Seattle was not Washington, D.C., but it was certainly not free from racism in the 1950s.The Thompsons soon left the Olympic and took an apartment in the Central Area, but an oppressive police presence, including frequent forays by policemen into the Thompsons' apartment building, persuaded the family to move to a more child-friendly environment. At that time, blacks in Seattle were largely confined to the Central Area under de facto discriminatory policies that prevailed in the city's real-estate market. The Thompsons finally found a house in the Ridgecrest neighborhood in Shoreline, north of the city. Even there, the home's owner thought it necessary at one point to spend the night with the family to deter vandalizing, but there were no incidents. Soon two more children were added to the Thompson clan, daughters Susan Carol (b. 1955) and Gail Faye (b. 1956)
By the early 1960s, Dr. Thompson's medical practice was well-established and the family looked for larger accommodations. They again met hurdles; one real-estate agent refused to sell them a house in Parkwood on Mercer Island because the adjoining country club barred black membership. They eventually found another Mercer Island house they liked, located on Lake Washington, but a neighboring property owner objected. This time their real-estate agent stood up for them, and the sale went ahead. Alvin and Faye Thompson would live there for the next 50 years, and this was where they would raise their family.
Dr. Thompson also faced discrimination while finding an office for his medical practice. He was refused space in the Medical Dental Building at 509 Olive Way in downtown Seattle and was turned down at the Seneca and Summit Building on First Hill. Finally, he was able to open his first private office at 1300 Spring Street.
Dr. Thompson was a smart, articulate, and compassionate man, and his influence soon spread beyond his medical practice. Having faced discrimination for many years, he worked tirelessly to see that other people of color did not. As his own practice flourished and his influence grew, both in the medical profession and in the larger community, he had no reservations about speaking truth to power. In his own words: "I've been bucking the tide politically. If I objected to something, nobody could hurt me because they weren't paying me" (Oral History).
His activism took many forms, and he fought both to eliminate institutional bias and to vindicate individual rights. On one occasion, he protested to Seattle Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons over the treatment of a mentally ill man who was shot after a stabbing in Yesler Terrace. He told the chief, "Look, you know, this guy was sick. You can't handle sick people that way" (Oral History). This led Fitzsimons to call for a meeting with Dr. Thompson and others, after which the department revised its policies for handling such cases.
Dr. Thompson also was instrumental in the creation of the King County Medical Society's Jail Health Task Force, which led to improved medical care in the King County Jail and enabled it to gain certification by the American Medical Association (AMA). He also protested the use of chokeholds by police, and as a delegate to the AMA in 1983 helped push through a resolution calling for a ban on their use.
Improving Health Care for All
Dr. Thompson had many professional interests, but among the most important to him were improving the quality of medical care in general and working to ensure that good care was equally available to all, rich and poor alike. The various posts he held that touched on both these concerns are too numerous to mention, but this sampling is illustrative of his deep involvement in these issues.
One of Dr. Thompson's signature achievements, and the one that he was perhaps most proud of, came in the late 1960s, when he was an architect and facilitator of the Seattle Model Cities Health Program. The original federal Model Cities Program was enacted by Congress in November 1966 to use a multipronged effort to tackle problems of poverty and race in the nation's large cities. Immediately after the law was passed, the City of Seattle appointed a committee to prepare an application for federal funds. The committee identified a "Model Neighborhood" that included the Central Area, Pioneer Square, and the International District, which combined held more than 60 percent of the city's non-white population.
One year later, in November 1967, Seattle was the first city chosen to receive funding to create a comprehensive plan. Task forces were established, including one for health care, on which Dr. Thompson served from 1968 to 1970. He strongly believed that poor people had the right to receive quality medical care and to have a free choice of health-care providers, rather than be relegated to "ghetto clinics," which often offered substandard care. According to Dr. Abe Bergman, a local pediatrician and fellow task-force member, Dr. Thompson's views were not always popular, but his basic ideas prevailed in significant part. The Seattle Times summed up the City's approach as it appeared in the final Model Cities documents:
"Rather than build a public-health clinic in the community, the program proposes to use the concentration of medical personnel and facilities adjacent to the model area. Fee and transportation subsidies would allow the choice of any available physician" ("Model Cities Meetings Planned").
Above all, Dr. Thompson was a realist and an advocate for what worked. In 1970, the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic opened at 2017 E Spruce, with an African American pediatrician, Dr. Blanche Lavizzo (1925-1984), as medical director. After studying the operation and becoming convinced of its worth, Dr. Thompson gave the clinic his full-hearted support. That same year, as president of the staff at Providence Medical Center in Seattle, he would be instrumental in establishing the gastroenterology and internal medicine lab.
Even with these new responsibilities, his work for the causes in which he believed never flagged. A very partial list of other roles that Dr. Thompson played in improving medical quality would include:
- Chair, Quality Assurance Committee, The Doctors Hospital, 1960-1966
- Medical Practice Committee, King County Medical Society, 1971-1974
- Quality Committee, Washington State Health Commission, 1993-1996
- Health Care Quality Task Force, Washington State Medical Association, 1995
- Medical Services Committee, American College of Physicians, 1997-1998
- Interagency Quality Committee, Washington State Health Quality Board
A Deep Involvement in His Profession
Dr. Thompson served as president of the King County Medical Society and of the Washington State Medical Association. In these positions, as well as in his roles as president of the Washington Association of Biomedical Research and as a governor of the American College of Physicians for Washington and Alaska, he worked to develop policies and strategies for expanding access to quality health care.
His lifelong efforts to plant seeds that would bring about health-care improvement led his wife to call Dr. Thompson the "Johnny Appleseed of Medicine." His influence in the health-related agencies of which he was a member is legend. Among others, he served with the Pacific Northwest Kidney Center, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, the Puget Sound Blood Center, Transitional Resources, Physicians for a National Health Plan, the Washington State Commission on Nursing, the Peer Review Organization of Washington, Hospice of Seattle, and the Providence Medical Center Foundation.
Between 1970 and 1972, Dr. Thompson also was president of the Washington State Society of Internal Medicine, the Seattle Academy of Internal Medicine, and the Providence Medical Center Medical Staff. He remained deeply involved in the King County Medical Society, serving on its Board of Trustees and in other capacities.
In a long life of high accomplishment, Dr. Thompson was the recipient of numerous awards and other honors from his medical colleagues. Notable recognition came in 2008, when he was the recipient of the American College of Physician's prestigious Ralph O. Claypoole, Sr. Award for "the devotion of a career in internal medicine in the care of patients."
His achievements also were honored with the John Geyman Health Justice Award, in recognition of a tireless commitment to justice in health care; the Scribner Courage in Health Care Award from the Pacific Northwest Kidney Center; and the American Medical Association's Dr. Benjamin Rush Award.
Training and Uniting Black Health Professionals
While maintaining his private practice and carrying a heavy load of volunteer work, Dr. Thompson also dedicated himself to the improvement of medical education. He was Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington Medical School and later was honored as Emeritus Clinical Professor of Medicine. He served the school in many capacities, including as dean of the selection committee (1990) and participation on the minority-admissions task force. He also worked to improve training and provide opportunities for minority practitioners.
Dr. Thompson started the African American mentoring program at the medical school, and he was the community liaison for minority medical students and a longtime mentor for the school's Minority Medical Education program. He and his wife also established a fund to support the recruitment and retention of African American students in the medical school.
His involvement extended well beyond the halls of academia. In 1980, Dr. Thompson began contacting black physicians, nurses, dentists, and other health care professionals to form an organization focusing on health care for blacks. They and Millie Russell (b. 1926), a University of Washington administrator who called Dr. Thompson her "Thurgood Marshall of Medicine," organized the Washington State Association of Black Professional Health Care. More than thirty years later in 2013 the organization was still working to enhance health-sciences education for African American students, fighting for issues of importance to minority practitioners, and providing networking opportunities for black health-care professionals.
Somehow, Dr. Thompson also found time to participate fully in the affairs of his community. He served on the board of trustees of a diverse range of organizations, including the Seattle Foundation, Goodwill Industries, the Salvation Army, the Seattle Urban League, the Travelers Aid Society, and many more.
His other activities demonstrate Dr. Thompson's broad range of interests and his dedication to improving the lives of those he came in contact with, regardless of their background or status. He tutored at Hawthorn Elementary School, served as physician-coordinator for United Way of King County's health care task force, and from 1987 until near the time of his death served on the AMA's National Commission on Correctional Health Care, continuing his work for prison health-care reform. Of more local focus, he also served on the Mercer Island Fair Housing Committee and the King County Medic One Committee.
In 1989, Dr. Thompson was awarded the Philanthropist of the Year Award by Washington Gives. His involvement in the welfare of the broader community was recognized by the University of Washington with the Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Distinguished Service Award for community service and volunteerism. In 2006, he received the Volunteer Service Award from Transitional Resources, a Seattle organization dedicated to helping those suffering from mental illness. And this is just a sampling of the many honors and awards he received for his dedication to his profession and his community.
A Balanced Life
Although perhaps hard to believe in light of his many professional accomplishments, Dr. Thompson also lived a full and rich life outside of medicine. The family enjoyed sailing, camping, clam digging, and other Northwest outdoor activities. He liked to write poetry and he loved music, playing the title role in the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society's first production, The Mikado, and later, the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance.
Born in the capital of a nation still blighted by strict segregation, Alvin Thompson fought for equality, for himself and others, his entire life. Through grit, intelligence, and hard work, he overcame daunting odds to reach great professional success as a doctor. He earned the respect and admiration of his peers and the appreciation of the countless patients he helped over his long career. Together with Faye he raised a family of five children, and he participated in the affairs of his community and his country in countless ways, but always with energy and dedication. He never forgot the road he had walked, and he spared no effort to see that others would have a less difficult struggle.
Dr. Alvin Thompson died on May 21, 2012, at the age of 88, leaving behind his wife Faye and their five children. Two months later, in July, his friends and colleagues held a memorial service at the Swedish/Cherry Hill Hospital auditorium. People whose lives he had touched spoke of his medical skill, but also of his generosity, integrity, and professionalism.
Several who knew him also wrote brief tributes to Dr. Thompson. Aaron Katz met him when Katz was working for a health-planning agency. He remembered:
"Every time I saw Al, whether back in those old days or in the years since, he was always kind, supportive, inquisitive, thoughtful, and challenging, an extraordinary combination one rarely encounters" (Aaron Katz, People's Memorial).
A fellow doctor, Melissa P. Upton, wrote that Dr. Thompson was
"always gracious, dignified, patient and poised, with gentle humor and kindness toward the trainees. He was also a bedrock of stability and strength in matters of standing up for freedom, for his patients, and for access to education and health care for all" (Melissa P. Upton, M.D., People's Memorial).
And Paul Chiles, who sat with Dr. Thompson on the board of the Puget Sound Blood Center, summed it up:
"Dr. Thompson went through life giving, not taking -- doing, improving, suggesting, volunteering. Most of us fall into one category or another -- some of us are nouns, others adjectives. Dr. Thompson was a verb, and an active one!" (Paul Chiles, People's Memorial).