Remembering Ronald G. Tompkins, MD, ScD

Ronald G. Tompkins, MD, ScDRonald G. Tompkins, MD, ScD, Sumner M. Redstone professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and the former chief of the Sumner M. Redstone Burn Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, passed away on January 17th.

Dr. Tompkins was born in Many, Louisiana, as the youngest child of Horace and Ruby Tompkins. He always spoke fondly of his childhood. His father was the president of a local bank and his mother was an elementary school teacher as well as his fifth-grade teacher. His parents instilled in him the value of education and the importance of using one’s talents to contribute meaningfully to society.

Dr. Tompkins graduated as valedictorian of his high school class and went on to study at Tulane University from where he graduated in three years with a double major in mathematics and chemistry. He then attended Tulane Medical School and was accepted into the surgical residency program at Mass General. During his surgical residency, Dr. Tompkins earned a doctorate in chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the help of his lab assistant and dissertation copy editor. He completed his Harvard surgery residency and joined the surgical faculty at Mass General in 1987.

He went on to have an illustrious career as a surgeon. He was the Sumner M. Redstone professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and the former chief of the Sumner M. Redstone Burn Center at Mass General. He also served as the chief of staff of the Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston for 22 years, where he met his wife, Denise.

In addition to his surgical career, Dr. Tompkins was widely recognized for his work in translational science, medicine and engineering with a focus on inflammation and metabolic features of humans in response to severe stresses. He led one of the largest and most successful research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Inflammation and Host Response to Injury Grant known as “the Glue Grant,” which led to improvements in survival, reduction in morbidity for injured patients and established benchmarks for care in the fields of burns and trauma. In addition, he was a pioneer in outcome studies and quality of life for burn victims. His motto was “GPB” (Get People Better).

He has been honored by many societies throughout his career for both his clinical surgery and his innovative science. He has published more than 500 articles in both medicine and engineering journals. He has authored papers that are credited with over 50,000 citations. He was elected as a director of the American Board of Surgery in 1994 and served for six years. He has received multiple honors including a fellowship from the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University. He has served as an officer, including as president, and board member of more than a dozen national and international academic societies. He has also served on the boards as a scientific advisor to numerous start-up companies in a vast array of medical applications including treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and point-of-care diagnostics.

Following his decades of significant clinical and basic science discovery, Dr. Tompkins was the founding director for the Center for Engineering in Medicine & Surgery at Mass General, a center for research and innovation, which has translated scientific applications into multiple inventions and companies. The center promotes the development of new approaches to health care delivery and personalized medicine, minimally invasive therapies, as well as a myriad of new technologies such as re-engineered organs, smart nano-pharmaceuticals and nano-diagnostics, and living cell-based micro-fabricated devices for diagnostics, therapeutics, high-throughput drug screening, and basic and applied biomedical investigation.

More recently, he became involved in the Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) project of the Open Medicine Foundation (OMF) and became passionate about improving the care of this special patient population. He joined the OMF Scientific Advisory Board in 2014 and he became a co-director of the OMF in 2017.

Outside of his clinical and scientific pursuits, Dr. Tompkins traveled frequently, often as an invited speaker at medical and scientific conferences including to destinations such as Egypt, South Africa, India, Brazil, Australia, China, Japan, Southeast Asia and all over Europe and the U.K. He recently enjoyed his 70th birthday spent with Denise in Napa Valley.

His favorite activity was visiting with friends, both old and new. He enjoyed dinners out at a new place or just drinks and “tapas” (by Ron’s definition. In summer, he could often be found sitting with Denise at their cabana at the Charles River Park pool catching up with all the regulars. He and Denise also loved hosting dinner parties for family, friends and colleagues.

Dr. Tompkins loved his family deeply. A highly accomplished man, the only boasts he ever made to anyone were about his children and grandchild.

Comments from Mass General Colleagues

We lost a Polymath and an Intellectual Giant. An amazingly kind person who touched many a life.

Ravi Kapur, MD

We mourn the loss of Dr. Tompkins and hope for solace for his beloved wife, children and grandchild. His passing creates a void in the world of burn care and most especially in the burn care community at Mass General. Ron’s visionary leadership afforded us opportunities to participate in ground-breaking research that has helped to improve the care of the burn patient in many ways. His research impacted many surgeons and scientists across the world, and he mentored countless clinicians and researchers throughout his distinguished career. Among the many leadership positions he held, he served as the president of the American Burn Association and the International Society of Burn Injuries. He was the consummate investigator/educator with a keen clinical sense and an incisive intellect that guided both his research and clinical care at Mass General. He fostered the true team approach that is the cornerstone of burn care. Above all, Ron was a kind man, who always found time to mentor others, and had the respect of an enormous community of students, nurses, physicians and scientists. Ron Tompkins will be sorely missed.

John Schulz, MD, PhD
Attending burn surgeon at Mass General

Ron was one-of-a kind: a brilliant, innovative basic scientist who was way ahead of the rest of us in his understanding of molecular and cell biology while remaining grounded in surgical needs. He was also a long-time friend. Ron got a lot of years from the life-saving emergency coronary revascularization by Gus Vlahakes. I share with many others the regret that his time finally came.

Andrew Warshaw, MD
Director, Andrew L. Warshaw Institute for Pancreatic Cancer Research at Mass General

I am heartbroken. Ron was a great, brilliant, friendly, kind man. My condolences to Denise, his children and family.

Elizabeth Gilroy
Administrative coordinator for cardiac surgery at Mass General

Indeed, it is devastating to hear about Dr. Tompkins’ loss. He was a leader in the field and impacted the careers of so many in many positive ways locally, nationally, and internationally. It is terrible when visionaries like him are lost.

Laurence Rahme, PhD, MSc
Mass General research scholar

Ron was a good friend and colleague. The department was fortunate to have such an accomplished and productive scientist on the staff. Few in the country could claim someone of Ron's stature. He will be missed.

Douglas Mathisen, MD
Thoracic surgeon at Mass General