James Monroe Thorington, 1894-1989

Publication Year: 1990.



James Monroe Thorington, born in Philadelphia on October 7, 1894, died in nearby Germantown on November 29, 1989, at the age of 95. Roy, as his friends called him, was not only a distinguished opthalmologist, writer and collector of folk art, but one of the greatest friends of the American Alpine Club, which he joined in 1918. A member for 64 years, he had much to do with its growth. A resourceful editor of the American Alpine Journal from 1934 to 1946, and a long-time member of the Council (now known as the Board of Directors), he served as President during the war years of 1941-43 and was made an Honorary Member in 1949.

His ancestry can be traced to the English Bulkeley family, which stems from the Lord of the Isles and William the Conqueror. His grandfather, who joined a fur company out of St. Louis in 1837 and spent two years on the Western Plains, became United States Senator from Iowa and was American Consul on the Isthmus of Panama during the French administration. His father, James Thorington, served as surgeon of the Panama Railroad during this period before coming to Philadelphia.

Roy graduated from Princeton University in 1915, received his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1919 and after residency at the Presbyterian Hospital, began the practice of opthalmology. During 1917, he worked at the American Ambulance Hospital, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. For six years he was Instructor in Opthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He edited two editions of this father’s Methods of Refraction, and wrote papers on medical research and history.

Two summers of his youth, spent in the Bavarian Highlands, aroused his interest in mountaineering, a sport which dominated his avocational life. Fifteen seasons were spent in the Canadian Northwest, during which he explored much of the Alberta-British Columbia watershed between Mount Assiniboine and Robson, making some 50 first ascents, including Mounts Barnard, Lyell, Saskatchewan and North Twin, the latter being the highest summit entirely in Alberta. He also visited the Interior Ranges of British Columbia, with five seasons in the Purcell Range. A peak in the Purcells now bears his name. Many of the names of peaks suggested by him were accepted by the Geographic Board of Canada. He was the author of The Glittering Mountains of Canada (1925), The Purcell Range of British Columbia (1946) and the translator and editor of Conrad Kain’s Where the Clouds Can Go (1935). He also wrote the standard guidebooks of the Canadian Rockies and the Interior Ranges of British Columbia, both of which have gone through several editions.

He climbed and traveled in the Alps as well, and he was familiar with the major groups between the Dauphiné and the Gross Glockner. He wrote Mont Blanc Sideshow (1932) and A Survey of Early American Ascents in the Alps (1943). A list of his historical and other papers, issued in 1967, contained more than 275 titles. He also made ascents in the English Lake District, Norway, Swedish Lapland and Sicily.

In Canada and the Alps, he made a few guideless ascents, but usually he climbed with guides. These included Eduard and Ernst Feuz, Alfred Streich, Peter Kaufmann and Josef Biner. Conrad Kain climbed with him for five seasons.

Roy married Christine Rehn of Philadelphia in 1925. They were a devoted couple who over the years traveled extensively in Europe and also in Central and South America, North Africa and the Middle East.

Roy had a great interest in the running and decor of the Clubhouse of the American Alpine Club. He gave generously to the library and regularly traveled from Philadelphia to New York to attend monthly gatherings or teas, often showing his excellent slides. His exhibits in the Club Museum were often of museum calibre. After he stopped active climbing, he took to painting and would often present an oil painting of a mountain to someone who had climbed it.

Dr. Thorington was a member of the German-Austrian Alpine Club, the Swiss Alpine Club, the French Alpine Club and the Mazamas. He was made an Honorary Member of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1945 and of the Alpine Club (London) in 1946. He held other honorary memberships and was also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He edited the Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia for nine years and also served as Honorary Trustee of the International Folk Art Foundation of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to whom he left his extensive collection of Alpine folk art.

Roy’s guidebooks to the Canadian mountains have served thousands of climbers. On many subjects he was always interesting and informative. Few members have been involved with mountains in so many ways and few have done so much for the American Alpine Club.

Robert H. Bates