Thompson Surgical Instruments delivers uncompromised exposure to a variety of surgical specialties with the Thompson Retractor. In use for over fifty years, the Thompson Retractor is the only mechanical retractor to offer one frame for all exposure needs, multi-planed retraction, and unlimited customization.

The key to designing retractor systems is surgeon input. Early on, Thompson began working with a variety of specialties to provide the specific exposure surgeons need. With input from surgeons of varying specialties, Thompson’s retractor systems have continued to lead the way in providing the visibility surgeons need to not only be successful but to give the confidence to try new, improved procedures.


Richard C. Thompson, MD, was born December 15, 1919 in Fresno, California. Until nearly through high school, he grew up living in a two-room house on a farm outside of Fresno with kerosene lamps to study by. Within the week after graduation from high school, he hitched a ride to town, about 12 miles, removed his life savings (about $60.00) from the bank, and headed out to pursue the dream/goal of becoming a doctor.

He attended the University of California Berkeley for 3 years. He received his doctor of medicine degree from Stanford Medical School, California, and performed his internship at the New Haven Hospital, Yale University, Connecticut. After serving a 2-year obligation in the Navy in the Pacific theater, in 1946 he started his 2.5-year residency in anesthesia. He served on the faculty at Standard University Hospital in Palo Alto as an assistant clinical professor until the lure of private practice caused him to accept an invitation to join the staff at Mills Hospital in San Mateo, California, in 1951, where he practiced anesthesia for the next 30 years, retiring from the practice of anesthesia in 1980.

While he was on a Christmas vacation in Hawaii in 1959, he had the occasion to watch several tonsillectomies. He observed a technique for holding the McIvor mouth gag that seemed inappropriate, because the weight of the elevated gag rested on the child’s chest and depressed the chest wall with every aspiration. He observed that the anesthesiologist in another case had secured the McIvor gag to a towel with a Kelly clamp, thus freeing both hands for other tasks.

Sometime later, while working in the delivery room, he saw a nurse adjusting the stirrups and realized that the universal joint on the operating table allowed them to be adjusted in virtually any position.

Putting these two ideas together, he designed a system whereby the McIvor gag could be secured by a 0.5-inch steel rod to the operating table via a universal joint. Approximately 1 month later, in the early 1960s, he observed an excellent general surgeon get into difficulty when troublesome bleeding arose deep along the undersurface of the liver during a cholecystectomy. It was only with the assistance of a strong orthopedist holding the liver with a retractor that the bleeding was controlled. Dr. Thompson realized that a retractor blade attached to his bar would have allowed the surgeon to readily visualize the source of the bleeding. After a vascular surgeon colleague expressed additional interest in such a system, Dr. Thompson had 10 sets of a table-fixed retractor system manufactured for use by surgical colleagues. Thus, the first table-fixed retractor system was born. A patent for this was awarded in 1965.

Because he lacked manufacturing experience, Dr Thompson sold the patent rights to a local start-up anesthesia equipment manufacturing company. In a tragic turn of events, the firm’s partner with the real interest in Thompson’s retractor was killed in an automobile accident shortly thereafter. The firm continued to manufacture and distribute Thompson’s retractor system, but there was a high failure rate of the instrument because the universal joints were machined from aluminum. Dr. Thompson thought that inadequate attention was being paid to his device, and, in 1977, won a legal battle to acquire his patent rights.
While continuing in practice as an anesthesiologist, he began manufacturing the retractor in his garage and selling it to surgeons in California. Despite changing the universal joints to stainless steal, mechanical problems caused by stripped threads and lack of joints releasing continued to interfere with the smooth functioning of his retractor. In a moment of desperation, he called the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (Greenville, SC) and asked to speak to the chief metallurgical engineer, who was an old boyhood friend.

After graciously listening to Thompson’s problems on the telephone, the engineer suggested that he change to a particular type of stainless steel, similar to what they used in aircraft landing gear, and to have them heat treated in a special way. After switching metals, instrument failure problems stopped and his table-based retractor became a success.

In 1983, Dr Thompson sold his company to Dan Farley. Dan Farley’s father, Dr Albert W. Farley Jr., practiced neurosurgery in Saginaw, Michigan, and perceived that a table-fixed retractor would be of value in neurosurgery. In 1972, Dr.Farley began using a rough prototype to improve exposure in carotid artery surgery and anterior cervical spine surgery. He discussed these ideas extensively with his son Dan, who majored in industrial design in college.

On the basis of these discussions, Dan developed a new prototype that his father began using in 1980. In the early 1980’s Dan Farley approached Thompson with his prototype, wanting Dr. Thompson to manufacture and distribute the retractor. Dr. Thompson was very impressed with the retractor and with Dan Farley, but he had begun to think of retirement. Dr. Thompson’s wife had died of a malignant brain tumor in 1978 and he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1982. Dr. Thompson suggested that Dan Farley buy his company and use this as a stepping stone to develop further and market his retractor system. With a handshake, Dr. Thompson sold his company to Dan and Thompson Surgical Instruments was created April 1, 1983.