Black History Month – Vivien Thomas and Heart Surgery

Vivien T. Thomas

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 , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. yahtzeebutterfly


    What an amazing career Dr.Vivien Thomas had! Imagine it taking until 1976 for him to be granted an honorary doctorate for his contribution to the field of heart surgery!

    Thanks for your great article. Now I want to see the movie!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yahtzee,
      It’s a shame that Vivien was placed in that position because of the color of his skin. During Jim Crow, Johns Hopkins Hospital used Blacks to their advantage, without compensation and recognition. Remember what they did to Henrietta Lacks?

      I’m sure you will enjoy the movie.

      Liked by 3 people

      • yahtzeebutterfly

        I did watch the movie (on Youtube). So moving.

        It is not too late for Johns Hopkins Hospital and the university to compensate the families of Henrietta Lacks and Vivien Thomas and others.

        My heart is sick thinking of all the opportunities missed by our country and various institutions to regain moral standing through rectifying past mistakes, unfair practices, and theft of labor, rights and freedom.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes. This is why Black History Month is so important. This country had told Blacks that they were not intelligent enough to learn what Whites learn. They told Blacks that they never accomplished anything worthwhile for our society and that they would never be important to America. It reminds me of something Frank Taaffe said once; i.e., if it wasn’t for the NBA, America would have the tallest garbage men.

          Johns Hopkins’ institutions did not assist Thomas to get into medical school and earn all the credentials to give him the same recognition and salary as White physicians. It was the era of Jim Crow; not that long ago.

          The Lacks family did accomplish some things through the National Institute of Health. Their privacy had been violated and that has stopped. They will now also be included in making decisions on how HeLa cells are used. Last year, they sought compensation.

          The reason why I think it’s too late to compensate for the wrongs on racial inequality is because the first generation since those such as Thomas and Lacks have already been deprived of having financial resources to advance and benefit their lives. For example, had Thomas been paid the salary of a surgical assistant, rather than a janitor and then a lab technician, he could have provided so much more for his daughters and their future.

          Liked by 2 people

      • yahtzeebutterfly

        I just saw that a shirt company is making a “Thank You Henrietta Lacks” T-shirt:

        “New T-Shirt Line Says “Thank You” To Black History Makers, Pledges #NoMoreHiddenFigures”


        Boston, MA — “How often have you learned about a historic accomplishment made by a Black person in America and wondered, why am I just now hearing about this? The answer is because it’s by design. As some U.S. corporations and politicians distort American history by either misrepresenting actual events or altogether omitting the contributions of marginalized people from textbooks and public school curriculums, new apparel company Thank You Tees is returning the power to educate to the people.

        “Thank You Tees was founded by HBCU graduates Stephanie Campbell (Howard University) and Veronica N. Chapman (Spelman College). The t-shirts provide people an opportunity to learn about and express gratitude for the countless contributions of Black Americans. While all Americans benefit from the ingenuity of Black thinkers, inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, educators, and activists, many of these contributions aren’t celebrated as part of the American tapestry.

        “While a few modern history makers are included in the Thank You Tees catalogue, the primary mission of Thank You Tees is to bring awareness to hidden figures by building an army of Thank You Tee envoys who want to educate the world about this unsung American history. To achieve this mission, each shirt includes the company’s Thank You logo along with the name of a Black history maker. The bold design prompts people to inquire about the featured person or research the name themselves – mission accomplished.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, it’s really cool what/who was behind something that we now take for granted! Thank you so much for sharing this Xena!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dear Xena,

    This is the blessing of valuing diversity. How many miracles have we missed out on by not giving others a chance to contribute because of their color?

    Hugs, Gronda

    Liked by 4 people

  4. “Something the Lord Made” is a great movie. Is it showing on TV.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. All most people need, and ever need is a chance to show others what they are capable of!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mindyme,
      SO TRUE! To have that chance in fairness and equality would have helped this country overall, with future generations being served with a good foundation to build on.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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