Alumni Spotlight: Tate Thigpen, MD

Dr. Tate Thigpen, retired Professor of Medicine was inducted into the Medical Alumni Hall of Fame on August 22, 2019. Dr. Thigpen served as Division Director of Oncology from 1978-2013 and then of Hematology and Oncology from 2013 until 2017 when he retired. Here, he talks about life in retirement, lessons learned and gives advice to the physicians of the future.


During the first 42 of the 43 years that I served as a member of the faculty of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi, I never thought seriously about retirement.  I had always assumed that retirement would be a relaxed period of time that would permit me to do all of those things that I never seemed to get around to during the work years.  In the last year before retirement, I vigorously planned those things that would fill time during the coming retirement: time with Louisa, time with my five sons and four daughters-in-law, time with the now nine grandchildren with which we have been blessed, time for golf and photography.  I actually worried very little about boredom, something I had heard others fret over.  What I have found since retirement is that there is no limit to those things that can occupy your time in a quality way if you choose.

During the first two years of retirement, I devoted much time to continuing to contribute to the research activities of the Gynecologic Oncology Group, the National Cancer Institute sponsored cooperative research group with which I worked for the vast majority of my career.  I also continued making CME presentations when asked.  As we have now reached the third year of “retirement,” we are beginning to phase these activities out.  The other major activity has been the teaching of a young marrieds class at our church, First Baptist Church of Jackson.  This activity will continue as long as they will have me.  What has not occupied any time in the first two years has been those two prime hobbies: golf and photography.  That is slowly beginning to change now.

I have been asked to share thoughts on several items.  First, what is something that I have learned in retirement?  The major thing is what it feels like to live relatively stress-free.  Someone asked me what time I get up in the morning.  My response was 6 AM, to which they replied that that was no different from when I was working.  That is true, but there is a big difference between getting up because you have to and getting up because you want to.  The latter creates virtually no stress.

Secondly, I was asked what I miss most about UMMC.  The short answer is the people.  Most of the close friends in my life outside of family are or have been employees of UMMC.  I miss the daily interchanges and challenges that we all dealt with together.  One of the great joys for Louisa and me currently is our weekly meeting with my former administrative secretary Bonita and her husband Charles over coffee at Starbucks.  They live in Forkville, Mississippi.  Since a significant portion of the Division of Oncology staff from over the years live in the Forkville area, we get to keep track of how they are doing as well.

Thirdly, I was asked to share a memory or story from my time at UMMC.  There are obviously many episodes throughout a 43-year career which provide fond memories as well as professional fulfillment.  Perhaps the fondest such story from my memory bank concerns an admission for acute leukemia in the early 1970s.  The patient was admitted to the Hematology-Oncology Service with a diagnosis of acute leukemia.  What differentiated her from most such patients was the fact that she was four months pregnant.  The treatment for acute leukemia was evolving toward more effective therapy and better results, but little was known about the effects of the agents involved on the fetus.  For virtually all such patients, an abortion followed by treatment for the acute leukemia was recommended.  The patient did not really want an abortion because she viewed the gestating baby as a crucial part of her legacy since she was expected to die of her acute leukemia.  After extended discussions with the patient and with other involved services, we decided to proceed with the treatment and not to carry out an abortion.  Her case was subsequently reported as a case report of a successful completion of pregnancy during treatment for acute leukemia.  We were able to continue to see the patient for another 35 years without recurrence of her acute leukemia.  The child grew up healthy and graduated from high school to live a successful life.  This exemplifies the many experiences that make medicine a field of endeavor with its own unique set of rewards that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

The final question I was asked to address was to delineate the advice I would give to those who are career planning for the future.  Since I am not a job counselor, I will confine these remarks to medicine.  I chose internal medicine and medical oncology because this combination of specialty and subspecialty provided the best opportunity to interrelate with patients in a meaningful way in my judgment.  Most patients diagnosed with cancer feel that they have been given a death sentence.  They come to the medical oncologist with low expectations.  Whether this is an accurate perception of their situation depends on the specific circumstances of their disease.  In general, however, our ability to help patients with cancer is far greater than most think.; and there is no more grateful patient population even if, as is sometimes the case, the benefit delivered is small.  In addition, the pace of advancement in oncology has been and still is astounding.

Not all, however, will draw the conclusions that I did.  For those considering medicine as a career, I would simply say that developing clear general goals for what one wishes to accomplish in life is the most important first step.  Once these goals are firmly understood, the doors that lead to accomplishment and satisfaction will open and will find the goal-oriented person ready to take advantage of those openings.

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  1. as one of the first fellows trained by Tate Thigpen I wish to add my own appreciation to him and his family.
    He was definitely the smartest mentor and the most astute physician I ever met
    He taught me never to give up even in face of difficulties that may appear insormountable
    He gave me an inspiring example of Christian faith in a very difficult time of my life (Though, I wish to make it clear, his faith and my faith led us to different political conclusions, but faith is faith, and Tate’s could not be more inspiring.)
    I don’t need to highlight all of Tate’s achievements, except for one that does not get much attention. He initiated the programs of psycho-oncology and of hospital chaplaincy (supporting the unforgettable Jim Travis) and also for these initiatives he should be considered visionary.

    I had a successful career in a major cancer center and received a number of national and International recognitions for my work and I feel I owe most of it to Tate Thigpen

    Go Mississippi State! make Tate proud of you


  2. Il miglior fabbro
    My dear friend and colleague Dr Balducci would agree with this description of Dr Tate Thigpen. It means the greater craftsman. Our lives, careers, and benefits to countless numbers of cancer patients have been the legacy to us and the many clinicians who began our journeys under Dr Thigpen. Medical Oncology crystallized from a chaotic offshoot of Hematology to predominant branch of Internal Medicine within a remarkably few years in the late 60’s to early 70’s. Because of Dr Thigpen and his colleagues at the time our program developed as a superb example and offered citizens of our state immediate access to cancer care comparable to any locale in the country. Recent articles talk of the generally improved outlook in cancer in the U.S. over the last 30 years, not just in investigational centers, but from the dissemination of state-of-the-art care throughout all communities. In our area Dr Thigpen, as much as any one person, made sure Mississippi was taken care of. As a teacher, colleague,friend and neighbor knowing Tate has been, and will continue to be one of my great blessings in life.


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