Black History Month: Vivien Thomas (1910-1985)
Thomas dreamed of becoming a physician, and saved his money from carpentry for seven years to attend medical school. But he lost his savings in the Great Depression, and instead began working as a laboratory assistant at John Hopkins University to Alfred Blalock, whose name is well known as a pioneer in cardiac surgery.
When Dr. Helen Taussig approached Blalock about how they could solve a congenital heart defect causing blue baby syndrome among her young patients—a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF)—Blalock approached his technician Vivien Thomas with the problem. Thomas had the idea to connect the aorta to the pulmonary trunk, thus allowing blood to circulate through the pulmonary tract. Blalock asked Thomas—who was not allowed to perform surgery on white patients—to attempt to recreate the conditions of the defect on a dog and then rectify them. Thomas was only able to reproduce 2 of the 4 features of TOF, but the procedure was successful and harmless nonetheless. Thomas performed similar operations numerous times; Blalock only once. Blalock then executed the operations on the children from Taussig’s ward—with Thomas standing on a stool behind him, explaining the proper procedural methods along the way. The operations were largely successful and the “blue babies” were cured.
So what is the procedure called? The Blalock-Taussig Shunt. Thomas received no credit or mention in the development of this life-preserving method. News of the surgery spread far and wide, and confirmed Blalock’s success as a physician. Thomas still received no acknowledgement for his achievements, from the public, from Blalock, or from the university.
After Blalock’s death, Vivien Thomas stayed at John Hopkins mentoring and educating young black technicians. Though he had never received a medical degree, he was presented an honorary doctorate by the university in 1976 (but it was a doctorate of Law, presented so that his students may finally call him “doctor”). He died in 1985, just days before the publication of his autobiography.
So why is Black History Month important? Because names like Vivien Thomas need to be known, and the naming of procedure’s like the Blalock-Taussig shunt give a false impression of history. I don’t know about you, but I think Vivien Thomas shunt is a better name for the procedure.
Note: much of this I got from my class on embryology; further information was gleaned from the following sources: