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Craig Thompson, M.D., '75: Why not?
Military brat, precocious medical student, controversial researcher, director of a cancer center: Craig Thompson has rocketed through a career that has taken him from Boston's Peter Bent Brigham and University Hospitals, to Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, to the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland, to the University of Michigan, to Howard Hughes Medical Institute, to the University of Chicago.
Eventually, he splashed down in Philadelphia, in 1999, as scientific director at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute. And he was just named director of the Abramson Cancer Center in September 2006.
One might say that he rocketed through his formative years, too. "I was a military brat," says Thompson. "My dad was in the Coast Guard, so I grew up all over the place." In the 1960s, his father was an expert in long-range navigation and coordinated the deployment of ships from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to retrieve the Mercury space capsules from the Pacific Ocean. "Remember, they just shot those things at the Pacific and hoped they landed there," Thompson laughs. "We got to meet all the astronauts when they came back. They recovered [the capsules and] tied them up literally in my front yard—50 feet from my house. President Kennedy came out to my house one time, I remember. . . . It was really neat."
Thompson had been born in Boston, and his family made its way back there by the time he was in high school. There, his father ran a cutter that went out to sea for a month at a time, says Thompson, "and sat within a five-mile point in the mid-Atlantic and sent out a homing beacon for navigation."
Recruited to Dartmouth to play soccer, Thompson also joined the kayaking team. But, he confesses, "I didn't really graduate from college. In my second year I had a huge falling out with the soccer coach and quit playing soccer because he wanted me to give up science courses. And I wouldn't do that." He laughs. Yet he had come to college intending to play sports. The abrupt change in his focus forced him to think hard about what he wanted to do next. There was one thing he was sure of—he loved science.
And "one thing you could do in science that I understood was to be a doctor or a nurse," he says. "So I applied to [Dartmouth] Medical School in the middle of my sophomore year. I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, applying to medical school. I'll never forget my interview with Dr. [Charles] Faulkner, who basically told me I wasn't living up to my responsibilities" by not honoring the commitment to play soccer. "We had a huge shouting match," Thompson recalls. Nevertheless, he was admitted to DMS. Faulkner "was incredibly nice to me afterward," adds Thompson, "and always told the tale that the reason he thought I could take it in medical school was because I could stand up to a professor who was telling me I was wrong."
Dartmouth wasn't about to let Thompson get away without a college degree, however. At the end of his first year in the two-year medical program, which Dartmouth was in the process of transforming into a full M.D. program, he
was called into the dean's office and told to grade himself on the first year of medical school; they would use that work to give him credit for an undergraduate degree. "I have no idea who worked that out, but I've always been grateful because I do have an undergraduate degree in which my major is going to medical school," he says. He graduated from DMS with honors and completed his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thompson had accepted a Navy scholarship to pay for medical school and expected to become a military clinician like those he'd met growing up. But he began working in naval research—in Boston, Bethesda, and Seattle—even before his training was completed. At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he was both a naval officer and a research fellow, he cared for bone-marrow transplant patients who were given cyclosporine, an immunosuppressive drug that prevented the rejection of the new marrow.
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Laura Carter is the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine magazine.