Theophilus Shickel Painter, scientist and university president, was born in Salem, Virginia, on August 22, 1889, the son of Franklin Verzelius Newton and Laura Trimble (Shickel) Painter. He received a B.A. degree from Roanoke College in 1908 and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale in 1909 and 1913. He did postdoctoral work at the University of Würzburg in 1913–14. From 1914 to 1916 he was instructor in zoology at Yale. He served in the Connecticut National Guard in 1916. In the fall of 1916 he moved to the University of Texas as adjunct professor of zoology. When the United States became involved in World War I, he served first as a lieutenant with the United States Army Signal Corps in Canada and later as vice president of the academic board of the School of Military Aeronautics, established at the University of Texas. He was discharged with the rank of captain in 1919. Painter married Anna Mary Thomas of Philadelphia on December 29, 1917, and they had four children.
He became associate professor at the University of Texas in 1921, professor in 1925, and distinguished professor of zoology in 1939. He was named acting president of the university in 1944 and became president in 1946. During his administration student enrollment rose from 9,848 to 14,456, and faculty membership increased from 683 to 956. Campus expansion included construction of the experimental science, journalism, and pharmacy buildings, as well as Batts, Mezes, and Benedict halls. The most significant event of Painter's administration, however, was the United States Supreme Court's 1950 Sweatt v. Painter decision, which required the University to grant admission to Heman M. Sweatt and several other black students because there was no "separate but equal" facility available. Painter resigned as president in 1952 but continued as professor of zoology until his retirement from active teaching in 1966.
His contribution to zoology was primarily in the field of genetics. His earlier research was in the cytology of spiders. He was widely known for his investigations of chromosomes in the salivary glands of fruit flies. Painter's work in genetics brought him the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1934. He was also the first recipient of the Anderson Award for scientific creativity and teaching, given by the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Painter was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Society of Zoologists, the American Society of Naturalists, and the American Society of Anatomists. His publications included papers and articles in several scientific journals. He died in Fort Stockton, Texas, on October 5, 1969, and was buried at Austin Memorial Park in Austin. The physics building at the University of Texas was renamed in his honor in 1974, and the T. S. Painter Centennial Professorship in Genetics was established in 1984.