Feb 06

Vivien Thomas; Black History Month highlight

Vivien Thomas briefly attended college and never attended medical school yet he is considered a pioneer in the field of heart surgery.

Vivien Thomas , grandson of a slave, was born in New Iberia, Louisiana and attended Pearl High School in Tennessee. Thomas has plans to attend college but the Stock Market crash and following Great Depression changed his plans. He began working at Vanderbilt University as a surgical research technician. It was at Vanderbilt that he met Dr. Blalock, who he assisted in surgical research. Although Thomas was performing high level surgical research on animals, he was classified and paid as a janitor.

Thomas and Blalock researched hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. Their research changed the treatment of shock which saved thousands of World War II soldiers lives on the battlefield.

Blalock relocated to Johns Hopkins with the implicit instruction that Vivien Thomas accompany him as his surgical technician.

In the 1940’s, Blue Baby Syndrome was causing the premature death of children. Blue Baby Syndrome also known as Tetralogy of Fallot is a complex and fatal 4 part heart anomaly which shunts blood past the lungs causing oxygen deprivation in the child. Children with this condition have characteristic bluish skin or cyanosis.  Thomas, who surgically worked on dogs, was able to develop a surgical repair technique of the heart that restored oxygen enriched blood flow.  This paved the way for the first successful surgery in 1943 on an 18 month old infant. Thomas had also developed and made the new surgical instruments required to perform delicate heart surgery on infants and children. Now, Blue Babies had a chance of survival.

Vivien Thomas received no recognition of the new surgical heart procedure. He was absent in all press releases and surgical team pictures. Faithfully,  Vivien Thomas stood at Dr. Blalock’s shoulder instructing and advising his every cut of the surgical knife.

After Blalock’s death in 1964 from cancer, Thomas continued his employment at Johns Hopkins as Director of surgical research laboratories, teaching his precise surgical technique to hundreds of medical students. Vivien Thomas mentored, Teri Watkins Jr., Hopkins first black cardiac resident and assisted him in his work in the use of heart defibrillators. In 1976, Johns Hopkins University presented Vivien Thomas with an honorary doctorate, 33 years after the first successful Blue Baby surgical heart correction. After working for 37 years at Hopkins, Thomas was finally appointed to the faculty of the School of Medicine as Instructor of Surgery.  Thomas died in 1985 at the age of 75.

If you would like to learn more about Vivien Thomas, please read his autobiography, Partners of the Heart




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>