Obituary: W. Thomas Thach Jr., professor emeritus of neurobiology, 77​


William Thomas Thach Jr., MD, professor emeritus of neurobiology and the eldest of three highly regarded brothers on the Washington University faculty, died of cancer Tuesday, July 1, 2014, in Town and Country. He was 77.

Thach, a neuroscience researcher and clinical neurologist, was a renowned expert and pioneering researcher on the cerebellum, a part of the brain that coordinates muscle movement and maintains balance. He was recognized internationally for his scientific contributions, and his expertise drew many students and faculty to Washington University School of Medicine.

Thach and his brothers, Robert E. Thach, PhD, and Bradley T. Thach, MD, gave decades of service to the university — Bradley as a professor of pediatrics, and Robert as dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and as a professor of biology and of biochemistry and molecular biophysics. His brothers are now retired.

William Thomas Thach Jr., best known as Tom, was deeply admired by his colleagues and was a beloved mentor and friend to many postdoctoral students.

Bradley L. Schlaggar, MD, PhD, head of the Division of Pediatric and Developmental Neurology, fondly recalled his first meeting with Thach, when Schlaggar interviewed in 1985 for the university’s Medical Scientist Training Program.

“I was quite aware of his work, so meeting him was like meeting a superstar,” Schlaggar said. “He was a fully active neurologist, as well as a basic scientist, and that’s who I wanted to be. I didn’t work in his lab, but, just like many here could say, he influenced my vision of what I could do for a career. I was fortunate to have a 30-year friendship with him.”

Thach, who also was a professor of neurology and physical therapy, joined the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in 1975. He was named acting medical director of the Irene Walter Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in 1989 and its medical director in 1991. The next year, he became director of the section on neurorehabilitation in the Department of Neurology. He retired in 2012 and was named professor emeritus.

Jonathan W. Mink, MD, PhD, vice chair of the Department of Neurology at
University of Rochester Medical Center, was mentored by Thach.

“It is remarkable that my strongest memories of Tom are so varied,” Mink said. “Spending hours pouring over data in the lab, trying to chase a black bear from our campsite after it had stolen a canteen of whiskey and some popcorn, sitting in his living room singing folk songs, hunting for wild berries and mushrooms in the woods, vigorous exchanges at Society for Neuroscience meetings, and sitting in his lectures when I was a medical student. He was a mentor’s mentor. He will be missed, but he has left a strong legacy.”

An Oklahoma native, Thach earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton University in 1959 and then became a Fulbright fellow in physiology at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He received his medical degree from Harvard University School of Medicine in 1964 and completed his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

From 1966-69, he worked as a staff associate in the Laboratory of Clinical Science at the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He then returned to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he completed a clinical and research fellowship in neurology in 1971. He served on the Yale University School of Medicine faculty from 1971-75 before coming to Washington University.

Thach received many awards and honors, including Distinguished Service Teaching Awards at the School of Medicine in 1992 and 1998.

His life also was rich while not on campus. He loved hiking, camping, canoeing, hunting, reading literature and poetry, and playing music with family, friends and postdocs in his band, Taum Sauk.

Thach is survived by his two brothers; sister, Maychai Brown; three children, Sarah, Will and Scott Thach; three grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

His family hosted a memorial sing-along in his honor Saturday, July 5, during which family and friends celebrated his life accompanied by the music of his band. A second memorial service will be Aug. 2 at Thach’s home, at 7520 Clayton Road in Richmond Heights. There will be an outdoor excursion the following day.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Peter Halstead Hudgens Award, Washington University School of Medicine, Campus Box 1247, 7425 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63105.