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Dr. Joe Thorne Gilbert Centennial Lectureship in Health Professions

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The Dr. Joe Thorne Gilbert Centennial Lectureship in Health Professions was established by the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System on June 17, 1983, for the benefit of the College of Natural Sciences. Gift funds were provided by family, friends, and colleagues. The endowment honors Dr. Joe Thorne Gilbert of Austin, Texas, a 1926 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts.

Dr. Joe T. Gilbert in 1970
Dr. Joe T. Gilbert in 1970

Joe Thorne Gilbert was born Aug. 7, 1905, in Austin, a great-grandson of Reuben Hornsby, the first settler in what is now Travis County.

As a youth Gilbert was known as an outstanding swimmer, spending his summers at Deep Eddy pool, winning several state championships, and breaking records along the way. His summers spent dedicated to swimming led him to meet his wife-to-be, Ailine Burch, on the hillside at Barton Springs.

Gilbert earned his BA from The University of Texas at Austin and earned his MD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1929, graduating as a member of medicine’s highest honorary academic fraternity, Alpha Omega Alpha. Following his postgraduate medical training, Gilbert returned to Austin in 1931 to practice medicine and surgery with his father, Dr. Joe Gilbert, an iconic figure in Austin’s early medical community. The elder Gilbert was the first director of UT’s Health Center (1908-1920) and instrumental in establishing what is today’s St. David’s HealthCare System. The younger Gilbert later followed in his father’s footsteps by serving as the director of surgery at The University of Texas Health Center for many years.

Joe and Ailene Gilbert in 1961
Joe and Ailene Gilbert in 1961

Soon after the United States entered World War II, Gilbert volunteered his services as a surgeon to the Army Medical Corps. Lt. Col. Gilbert served as hospital commander and chief medical officer at Goodfellow Army Air Corps Field in San Angelo, Texas, for the duration of the war. Afterward, he returned to Austin with his wife, Ailine, and their three children, Joe Burch, Maline, and Linda, and resumed his surgery practice.

Gilbert served his patients for 56 years, from 1929 until his retirement in 1985. He was a diplomat of the American Board of Surgery, a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and of the Southwest Surgical Congress, and a member of his county, state, and national medical associations. He published a number of scholarly articles in peer-reviewed medical journals. He served his profession as a governor of the American College of Surgeons, a member (by gubernatorial appointment) of the Texas Medical Board, president of the Texas Surgical Society, twice president of Travis County Medical Society, and as chief of staff at St. David’s Hospital.

Joe Gilbert (l) and Bob Barker (r) performing surgery at San Angelo Army Air Field, 1943
Joe Gilbert (l) and Bob Barker (r) performing surgery at San Angelo Army Air Field, 1943

Gilbert was deeply engaged with his home city of Austin, serving on the boards of directors of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, American National Bank, Austin Community Council, United Fund, and Austin Rotary Club. Raised in St. David’s Episcopal Church, where he served on the vestry, he and Ailine were among the founding members of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. In journal editorials and public speeches he urged his colleagues to engage in community and civic service.

Another recurrent theme in his presentations was to remind his colleagues to maintain the virtues of an ideal physician. In an article he wrote in the International Surgical Digest he encouraged “the nurturing qualities that help fight disease: compassion, understanding, and support.” The Joe Thorne Gilbert Lectureship is evidence that he lived these words. It represents donations from patients and colleagues who appreciated his quick and skillful hands, kindly bedside demeanor, and wit.

Gilbert learned new procedures and adapted his techniques even in his later years. In 1985, Parkinson’s disease forced his retirement. As illness withered his body and ultimately immobilized him, Gilbert never complained of his condition, and his humanity and fine sense of humor remained part of him until his death in 1989.

With the establishment of the Joe Thorne Gilbert Lectureship, Gilbert’s family hopes to further serve the memory of a man dedicated to both his community and his family. Gilbert’s children and grandchildren cherish memories of his physical feats — Joe swam from Bull Creek to Tom Miller Dam and walked on his hands from the top of the Deep Eddy steps to the bottom and sometimes up again. His family adored him and remember fondly his energy and humor: performing magic tricks, balancing a broom on his nose, yodeling and playing a saxophone and his home electric organ, drawing well and carving soap sculptures, and telling jokes and funny stories. A lover of cars, he bought a new 1957 Ford Thunderbird and drove it the rest of his life.

A colleague wrote in the Travis County Medical Society Journal:

    “Joe Thorne could do in one-fourth the time and with one assistant what UT Southwestern Medical School surgery professors did with two residents and a medical student. In his prime Joe was the peer surgically of the best surgeons I later observed in several of the great medical centers in the country."

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