Remembering Dr. Freddie L. Thomas (1918-1974)


Photo: Dr. Freddie L. Thomas and wife Midge Thomas one month after being engaged (October 1956)

Dr. Freddie L. Thomas was a historian and a scientist, an inventor an author, a book collector, a composer and a scholar,- who had mastered the art of teaching.

The focus of the biography is not specifically centered on the scientific aspects of Dr. Thomas’s life, but also the political and social environments of the communities he encountered.

Equally significant, he reached out to young people, both from prominent and poor families (including gang members) to teach them the importance of obtaining a quality education. He spent an enormous amount of time with youth teaching them everything from basic rudiments of English and mathematics to complex mathematics, physics, philosophy, and religion. It was his way to seek out youngsters in the streets, get them interested in learning and then teaching them; if they were willing to apply themselves.

He tutored all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Although, he never had a teaching certificate and never received any financial compensation in return. He didn’t do it because he was after any gain of money or power. It was his natural way of living. He was, indeed, a Silent Leader.

University of Rochester Personnel Department:

In a letter dated October 7, 1976, Priscilla G. Specht, Personnel Representative of Technical Positions at the University of Rochester stated, “Mr. Thomas joined the staff of the University of Rochester Medical Center on January 9, 1961, and was a highly valued and widely respected member of the University family until his untimely death on February 24, 1974.

She further stated that, as a Technical Associate in Radiation Biology and Biophysics, he made important contributions to the scientific work of the Medical Center.

One of his major achievements during his years of service here was the development of a Chamber and Perfusion System for General and Specialized In Vitro Studies.

He described this project in these terms: In order to stimulate the cellular environment, in-vitro perfusion techniques must fulfill many requirements. The following constitute the major criteria, which must be met:

1. Regulated supply flowing nutrient,

2. Controlled temperatures,

3. Provision for removal and collection of spent medium and metabolic byproducts,

4. Sterility,

5. Inertness of all parts,

6. Accessibility to tissues, cells and media for analyses and modifications,

7. Option of longer- or short-term cultures,

8. Chamber portability for varied microscopy and photomicrography,

9. Design simplicity that favors handling ease, smooth performance and low cost.

“The system fully met all of these objectives, and the achievement was characteristic of the man,” Specht said. “He was a gentlemen and scholar.”

“I’m just a natural man, one of common folks who enjoy reading and studying and helping people. I like plain clothes, plain food and good friends”-Dr. Freddie Thomas

Freddie's funeral was officiated by Reverend Marvin Chandler on Sunday, March 3, in 1974 at 3:00 PM, in the Interfaith Chapel of the University of Rochester, Riverside Campus.

Freddie’s obituary summed up the life he lived in a few words as, sincere, earnest, loyal, industrious and self- sacrificing. John Griffin, a close friend of the Thomases’ called him a gadfly, who created a synergistic atmosphere that brought youngsters clamoring for knowledge at all hours.

“Freddie always had time ‘not’ only for youngsters, but anyone who wanted to check-out the authenticity of his work,” Griffin added. “Freddie was the type of individual who could stand toe-to-toe with the best of the professional and scientific technologists in the United States and the world.”

“Freddie’s extensive study and research in tissue culture and the fact, he was able to physically translate his idea into an invention which aided and supported his theories are indications of his extraordinary intellect, talent and creative power,” he said.

“I’m not a doctor, but I believe, when you’re full of anxiety and exuberance and is not able to have the time or convenience and most important the source to relate to, that’s not good for anyone’s body; especially a fellow with multiple myeloma. We know of no other one who tried harder to interpret the wishes of men. He may have been small in stature but Freddie’s love and devotion for his wife, his concern for others. And the character and integrity he possessed made him ten feet tall,” Griffin said. He led and served; he is just away.”

Rev. Walter G. Smihula

In trying to compensate in words his many contributions to humanity, I’ve chosen a letter from his archives, dated March 6, 1973, addressed to Freddie from The Reverend Walter G. Smihula, Pastor of Saint John English Evangelical Church in Lynbrook, New York.

Smihula writes: “I know this letter will seem to be like ‘a voice from the distant past. After all, we have not seen one another for approximately twenty tears. I deeply regret that loss of contact. However, I do cherish many memories of our time at Wagner, and the few months that we shared at the Rochester Y.M.C.A.

In all of this, I fondly remember that we enjoyed the precious gift of friendship. I am, of course, writing as a result of the article in the recent issue of The Alumni Magazine. I must confess that I reacted to the material with mixed emotions. It was wonderful to read about your personal achievements, and the community projects in which you have been engaged.
Frankly, neither came as a surprise; particularly your fruitful involvement with other people. The capacity to brighten the lives of those around you has always been in evidence. The news of your illness temporarily left me a little breathless.

Yet, the feeling could not remain. You see, I also have the conviction ‘quality’ and not ‘quantity’ is the real hallmark of human existence. Life is not simply measured in days or years, but in-terms of how life’s moments have been used.

During my ministry, I have had the opportunity to witness the truth of that reality. I have known too many people who have attained longevity, without ever really understanding the beauty of living. I have also seen those who crowded a much shorter life span with an abundance of meaningful and satisfying experiences.

No person has a choice regarding the time of his departure and certainly, no more than the time of his arrival. Nevertheless, we can all choose the kind of lifestyle that stands between the events of birth and death. Permit me to say as a friend: You have chosen well.”

Uncovered History:

Freddie was being recognized for the second time by the city of Rochester in 1984. He was included in ‘The 84 Rochesterians Sesquicentennial, 4 Score & 4.’

As an inductee, Freddie is highlighted as one of eighty-four persons who made significant contributions to Rochester.

The ceremony included a parade through downtown. Dr. Anthony L. Jordan and Frederick Douglass are the only other persons of color to make the list.
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