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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. Read the rest of this entry

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