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(August 29, 1910 - November 26, 1985)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1944
A Surgical Assistant with Hands Blessed by God
The bank crash of 1930 wiped out a young man's entire savings, destroying his dream of going to medical school. But, this didn't stop him from going on to revolutionize the medical profession. That man was Vivien Thomas, an aspiring physician. His lack of funds forced him to drop out of college and, with work hard to come by amidst the Great Depression, he took a job at Vanderbilt University as a lab assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock. In an era where institutional racism was the norm, Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor due to being African-American, despite the fact that by the mid-1930s he was doing the work of a post-doctoral researcher in Blalock's lab. This began a decades-long association, during which the pair became a creative and formidable force in the new "golden age" of heart surgery.
Thomas was a quick study, with particularly skilful hands. He worked diligently and learned to perform surgical operations, chemical reaction procedures and data analysis with precision. His quiet dedication to Blalock and the experiments was invaluable. When Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins in 1941, he asked Thomas to accompany him. Thomas joined Blalock's surgical team and helped to develop the "Blue Baby" operation, also known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Blue Baby (Tetralogy of Fallot) is a congenital defect involving multiple abnormalities of the heart. The condition causes blood to be diverted past the lungs, resulting in a lack of vital oxygen being transported throughout the body. It's this oxygen deprivation that causes the infant's bluish color (cyanosis) and gives the syndrome its name. Before Thomas and Blalock developed the Blue Baby operation, 25 percent of babies born with this condition died before their first birthday-by the age of ten, 70 percent would die. The procedure to correct Blue Baby was painstakingly worked out by Thomas over a two-year period. Ultimately, he joined an artery leaving the heart to an artery leading back to the lungs. This gave the blood a second opportunity to absorb the critical oxygen and transport it throughout the body. Delicate instruments were needed to perform the corrective heart surgery on their tiny newborn patients. Since no such instruments then existed, Thomas designed and built them himself.
The first operation was performed on November 29, 1944. When the baby's blue face turned pink from the now oxygenated blood, Thomas was elated. He later said, "You have never seen anything so dramatic. It was almost a miracle." The promise the procedure held was quickly recognized and, within the first year, more than 200 operations were performed. Since the 1940s, countless patients have benefited from Thomas and Blalock remarkable discovery. In addition to treating Blue Baby, this technique was also adapted to treat patients with a variety of other heart diseases.
Dr. Levi Watkin, of Johns Hopkins University, described Thomas as, "the most un-talked about, unappreciated, unknown giant in the African American community. What he helped facilitate impacted people all over the world." Recently, Vivien Thomas' fascinating story has been the inspiration for the PBS documentary, "Partners of The Heart" and the HBO film, "Something The Lord Made." Though Thomas' intelligence, dexterity and determination were critical to Blalock's success, it was over 25 years before he was given proper public credit for his role in devising the Blue Baby surgery. In 1976, The Johns Hopkins University awarded him an honorary doctorate. Today, his portrait hangs in the lobby of the Blalock Building on The Johns Hopkins Hospital campus.
Introduction by April Ingram
Table of ContentsIntroduction
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Key Experiment or Research
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The Science Behind the Discovery
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
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The DVD Something the Lord Made tells the story of Vivien Thomas. Better than most docudramas, the movie presents a nuanced history of two great scientists in an age of rampant racism in America. It shows the effects of prejudice on Thomas, an intellectual whose personality tended more toward quiet and studious, than confrontational. The science is presented well, telling the story of the first open heart surgeries, performed to make blue babies whole.
Of 152 reviews on Amazon.com, 137 are five star. Highly Recommended.
Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
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The Science Behind the Discovery
Thomas, Vivien. Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock: An Autobiography. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Wyckoff, Edwin. Heart Man: Vivien Thomas, African-American Heart Surgery Pioneer (Genius at Work! Great Inventor Biographies) (Ages 9-12, 32 pages). Enslow Elementary, 2007.
Thomas, Vivien. Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien T. Thomas and His Work With Alfred Blalock. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
Links to Information on the Science