Black History Month – Vivien Thomas and Heart Surgery
The Johns Hopkins Medical Institution holds Personal Paper Collections in the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, including papers about the “blue baby” disease. The surgical procedure eventually developed to save the lives of babies born with congenital heart malformation, robbing their blood of oxygen, is known as the Blalock-Taussig Shunt. However, it was a Black man named Vivien T. Thomas who created that shunt.
Vivien T. Thomas was born on August 29, 1910 in Lake Providence, Louisiana. His family later moved to Nashville, Tennessee. His father was a carpenter and Vivien followed in his dad’s footsteps until 1929. That year, Vivien began working as an orderly in a private infirmary and he enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College.
The stock market crash bankrupted the bank where Vivien had saved money for school, and his savings were wiped out. He dropped out of school and in 1930, he was hired at Vanderbilt University as a laboratory assistant for Dr. Alfred Blalock. Blalock was conducting medical research using dogs, and Vivien’s responsibilities included taking care of the animals and cleaning-up after them.
In 1941, Dr. Blalock took a position with Johns Hopkins and Vivien joined Blalock. They took on the research of correcting “blue baby” disease. Vivien looked for a way to join an artery leading from the heart to an artery leading to the lungs. The surgery was first performed on a dog. It was Vivien who realized that as the dog grew, the stunt did not. He created stitches to correct that problem and also adapted surgical tools for operating on infant hearts. The first open-heart surgery for “blue baby” was performed on a 14-month old on November 29, 1944. Dr. Blalock performed the surgery while Vivien stood over his shoulder guiding him.
Doctors Blalock and Taussig were awarded prizes, but Vivien Thomas waited decades for recognition. During his research, he operated on more than 300 dogs, but he was never allowed to operate on a human. It was not until 1976 that Vivien was awarded an honorary Doctorate by the John Hopkins University.
Vivien Thomas wrote his autobiography, “Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery“. It was published at the time of his death in 1985 by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hopkins Medicine pays honor to Vivien Thomas, writing;
“Not only was operating on the heart considered taboo in the 1940s, but the social establishment demanded clear separation between the races. Thomas’ intelligence and dexterity won him the position of Blalock’s lab technician, but it took more than 25 years before Thomas was credited publicly for his role in devising the Blue Baby surgery. In 1976, The Johns Hopkins University awarded him an honorary doctorate. Today, his portrait hangs in the lobby of the Blalock Building at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, across from the image of Alfred Blalock.”
Hopkins established the Vivien Thomas Fund to increase diversity at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, thus honoring the memory of a heart surgery pioneer by removing for others the economic and racial barriers that often stood in his way.
Many documentaries have been made about Vivien Thomas’ life and the discrimination he faced. The life of Vivien Thomas has been put in a movie, “Something the Lord Made”.
Posted on 02/26/2018, in Black History Month and tagged Alfred Blalock, Black history, blue baby disease, Johns Hopkins, medicine, segregation, stunt, Vivien Thomas. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.