Dr. Thomas W. Farmer, UNC’s first neurologist, dead at 96

Thomas W. Farmer, MD, an internationally renowned neurologist and a founding physician at UNC Hospitals, died Friday, Aug. 6, 2010 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Dr. Thomas W. Farmer, UNC’s first neurologist, dead at 96 click to enlarge Dr. Thomas Farmer. 1963 Faculty Directory, University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

“He was a pleasure to work with at all times” said Dr. Douglas Mann, professor of neurology at the UNC School of Medicine. “He was always approachable and had a fine sense of humor mixed with a practical appreciation of patient needs and expectations.”

Dr. Charles Burnett, chair of UNC Department of Medicine, recruited Dr. Farmer in 1952 to lead the department's Division of Neurology. He did this with great success by recruiting excellent faculty, rapidly building residency and fellowship programs, expanding clinical services, and strongly encouraging research. A 15-bed neurology service was established at Memorial Hospital in 1963 and the division continued to grow through the 1960’s and 70’s. Through Dr. Farmer’s efforts, the division became the Department of Neurology in 1976. Dr. Farmer continued to be active as a leader, teacher and physician until his full retirement in 1986.

Dr. Farmer “was one of the major reasons that I came to join the Department of Neurology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine” said Dr. Robert Greenwood, professor of neurology.

Dr. Farmer was highly regarded in all spheres of his field—locally, nationally and internationally. Dr. Colin Hall, professor of neurology, said he was “a meticulous clinician of the ‘old school’ with a dedicated patient population.” He was an excellent teacher and mentor, establishing and directing a formal residency program and earning the respect and devotion of his trainees, many of whom became leaders in the field themselves.

“He was an outstanding teacher and worked particularly well with the residents in neurology,” said Mann, “He worked closely with many of them in developing clinical research projects leading to publications, such as describing the Haw River Syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease indigenous to North Carolina.”

Dr. Farmer served for eight years as a member of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and was appointed director in 1977.  While balancing his administrative, clinical, and teaching responsibilities, he also maintained a wide range of research interests and published many scientific articles.  In 1964 he authored Pediatric Neurology, the first textbook in the subspecialty, which became known as the standard in the discipline for many years, according to Mann.  He also served as editor of Neurology Volume X of Tice’s Practice of Medicine in 1969. Dr. Farmer was recognized nationally as one of the fathers of Child Neurology. In 1975 the University recognized his contributions by naming him Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Neurology.

Throughout the years, Dr. Farmer served the people of North Carolina well.  “From the onset, he saw the value of academic/community interaction, and developed outlying clinics in underserved areas,” Hall noted.  Dr. Farmer served on a number of state governmental advisory committees. His work was essential during North Carolina’s polio epidemics in 1952 and 1954. While the primary focus of his research was on inflammatory diseases of the brain, he was always ready to address disorders that were rare in other areas of the country, particularly hereditary diseases that were unique to the area.

Dr. Farmer was born in 1914 in Lancaster, Penn. He received an A.B. from Harvard in 1935, an M.S. from Duke University in 1937, and completed his M.D. degree at Harvard in 1941. He completed post-graduate training and research at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, Boston City Hospital, Johns Hopkins, and the Philadelphia Naval Hospital before joining the faculty at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

Hall put it best, when he said, “Tom Farmer will most be remembered by those who knew and were lucky enough to work with him as an erudite, gentle, kindly man, without pretensions, always ready to listen and help, and, with his late wife Phyllis, the most welcoming of hosts.”