Black History: Vivien Thomas and the Blue Babies

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Vivien Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana. His grandfather was a slave, and he spent his lifetime in racially segregated institutions, from primary school to his prestigious career at Johns Hopkins University Hospital.

After Vivien Thomas graduated from high school, he planned to attend college, then medical school to become a doctor. Unfortunately, the Great Depression took a toll on his plans and he had to work in lieu of college.

Vivien Thomas Meets Dr. Alfred Blalock

In early 1930, Vivien Thomas was hired as a laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt University. He was hired to assist Dr. Alfred Blalock, and his work consisted of cleaning cages and feeding dogs that were used for laboratory experiments. Dr. Blalock learned that Thomas was exceedingly intelligent, and he increased his duties to doctoral level research work.

At Vanderbilt University, Vivien Thomas and Dr. Alfred Blalock produced groundbreaking research in the area of vascular and cardiac surgery – to which Thomas was highly instrumental. Dr. Blalock became a celebrated surgeon, and Vivien Thomas worked alongside him as an assistant (surgical tech work). When Dr. Blalock was asked to take the position of Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he asked Thomas to accompany him, and he accepted.

Vivien Thomas Arrives at Johns Hopkins

When Vivien Thomas arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1940, he found a racially segregated atmosphere much like the one he left behind in the south. The only black employees at the hospital were janitors. Vivien Thomas was doing the work of a surgical technologist, and it angered many hospital employees.

Vivien Thomas’ Groundbreaking Work with Blue Baby Syndrome

In 1943, Dr. Blalock was asked for a consult by Dr. Helen Taussig . Dr. Taussig was researching a cure for tetralogy of Fallot, which is a cardiac anomaly that causes babies to display a blue color (hence the term “blue baby syndrome.”) The disease was 100% fatal and Dr. Taussing was passionate about finding a solution.

Thomas and Dr. Blalock realized that the answer lay somewhere in the research they completed at Vanderbilt. It was Vivien Thomas’ job to create the condition in laboratory dogs and to perform the surgical procedure to correct the condition. Many members of the racially segregated hospital were incensed that a black man was allowed such leeway, and most doubted his capabilities. Thomas was successful, and he convinced Dr. Blalock that the procedure was safe for humans.

When Dr. Blalock performed the controversial and groundbreaking procedure, Vivien Thomas coached him through the process; Thomas had completed the procedure hundreds of times with laboratory dogs – Dr. Blalock was a novice.

The pair completed two more successful surgeries, and Dr. Blalock received worldwide recognition – while Vivien Thomas was never mentioned. The procedure became known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt, and it became a routine operation.

Vivien Thomas Trains the Surgeons at Johns Hopkins

Within the medical community at Johns Hopkins, Vivien Thomas became widely respected and revered. He went on to train young surgeons in surgical procedures and black lab technicians on their daily duties, yet his pay was substandard and he often worked a second job to get by. Eventually, Dr. Blalock lobbied on his behalf and his pay increased.

Vivien Thomas Gives Up His Dream of Medical School

According to Vivien Thomas’ wife, he was always interested in pursuing medical school. He attempted to enroll at Morgan State University, but he was deterred when they refused to grant him credit for life experience. Vivien Thomas abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor when he realized that he would be in his early 50s when he began to practice.

Dr. Alfred Blalock died in 1964, and Vivien Thomas remained at Johns Hopkins Hospital for another 15 years. Vivien Thomas died November 26, 1985 of pancreatic cancer, but his contribution to medicine and to black history is documented in his autobiography, Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and his Work with Alfred Blalock, the PBS documentary Partners of the Heart (2003), and the HBO film Something the Lord Made (2004).