Dr. Paul C. Adkins, 55, chairman of the department of surgery at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Services, died of cancer Wednesday at George Washington University Hospital. He lived in Bethesda.

A specialist in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery he joined the medical center faculty in 1954 as an instructor of surgery.He was appointed professor of surgery in 1966 and became department chairman in 1970. He held the Lewis Saltz professorship in the department.

Dr. Adkins also was a consultant in his field to Children's Hospital, the Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the National Institute of Health and Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Andrews Air Force Base.

He was born in New York City. He was a graduate of John Hopkins University and its school of medicine. After completing a surgical internship and residency at John Hopkins Hospital, he served as an officer with the Army Medical Corps.

Dr. Adkins was chief of surgery at an Army Hospital in Japan in 1950-52.

He then took a residency in surgery at George Washington University Medical Center and two years later a residency at thoracic surgery there.

He had published numerous papers in his field. In 1961, medical students at George Washington University dedicated their yearbook to him.

Dr. Adkins was a past president of the D.C. Thoracic Society and former chairman of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. He served last year as president of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

He was a former governor of the American College of Surgeons. He belonged to the D.C. Medical Society and the American Association of Thoracic Surgery. He was an associate editor of the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery and a member of the editorial board of Postgraduate Medicine.

He is survived by his wife, Faith, of Bethesda; four sons, Mark, of New York, and David, Paul and William, of Bethesda, and his mother, Jane R. Adkins of Bethesda.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Department of Surgery, George Washington University Medical Center.