Vivien Thomas Saved “Blue Babies”

In Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, author Gwendolyn Hooks tells the story of how Vivien Thomas developed a life-saving medical procedure. The surgical technique allowed babies born with the condition tetralogy of Fallot, or blue baby syndrome, to live.

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Vivien Thomas

Vivien Thomas was born in 1910 into the segregated American south. He worked with his carpenter father saving money for college and dreamed of a career in medicine. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, he lost his savings.

Not giving up on his dream, he interviewed for a position at the Vanderbilt University Hospital. He would work with Dr. Alfred Blalock as a surgical research technician. Vivien was not told when hired that he would receive less pay than the white research technicians. His official classification was “janitor.”

Vivien quickly learned to conduct experiments independently. He became an indispensable assistant to Dr. Blalock. The doctor was then offered the Chief of Surgery position at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He accepted only if Vivien would be his research technician.

The move to Baltimore from Nashville was difficult for Vivien and his family. They faced even more discrimination. But as Gwendolyn Hooks writes: “Vivien refused to let the prejudice of others interfere with his work.”

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Drs. Blalock and Taussig

Dr. Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist asked Dr. Blalock if he could devise a procedure for her young heart patients. The procedure would involve open-heart surgery. Dr. Blalock gave the assignment to Vivien.

Vivien studied the hearts of blue babies in a pathology museum. He noted the defects that prevented blue blood from entering the lungs for oxygenation. He decided that a procedure that he and Dr. Blalock had tried at Vanderbilt would be the answer.

A shunt would connect an artery from the heart with an artery going to the lungs. Vivien next made a small needle. It could be used on babies to suture the arteries. Then Vivien successfully performed the procedure on animals.

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Vivien Thomas Stands Behind Dr. Blalock

The first procedure on a baby was conducted on November 29, 1944. Vivien stood on a stool behind Dr. Blalock directing the successful operation. Over 150 times, he stood behind Dr. Blalock. He answered the doctor’s questions while the doctor performed the surgery . The procedure became known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt.

The Drs. Blalock and Taussig received national and international recognition. They were nominated for a Nobel prize. But Vivien Thomas’s name was never mentioned.

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Vivien Thomas’s Portrait At Johns Hopkins

It wasn’t until 1971, that Vivien Thomas was publicly recognized for his contribution to medical science. Today, his portrait hangs in the Blalock Building at Johns Hopkins directly across the hall from Dr. Blalock’s portrait. In 1976, Johns Hopkins University honored Vivien Thomas with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

With author Gwendolyn Hooks’s book Tiny Stitches, children can read and learn about Vivien Thomas a dedicated medical researcher. He overcame racial prejudice to save the lives of “blue babies.” Visit Gwendolyn Hooks at: http://gwendolynhooks.com

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Vivien Thomas

To learn more, visit Johns Hopkins at: http://www.medicalarchives.jhmi.edu/vthomas.htm

Jason Wright, a future Ken Burns, narrates this wonderful video.

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