(May 24, 1898 - May 20, 1986)
Born in Cambridge, MA USA
Years of Discovery: 1940s
Helen Taussig’s childhood had its challenges. Her mother died when she was eleven from tuberculosis (TB) and she had dyslexia, making her school work difficult. Still, she was academically inclined, going on to graduate from UC Berkeley. Then, she decided to be a doctor. Not an easy task in the 1920s for a woman. She met with the dean at Harvard (where her father was a professor), only to be told, sure she could take courses, but she would not be the first woman to get a degree from Harvard. That wouldn’t happen until 1957! So, she took courses at Harvard and Boston University, where she was so talented in the lab that her name was included on published lab research, even without a graduate degree. One of her professors encouraged her to go to Johns Hopkins, one of the few universities that accepted women in medical school. She did and graduated in 1927.
She was so good as a doctor that within three years she became head of the pediatric cardiac clinic at Johns Hopkins’ children hospital – the Harriet Lane Home. Now she had to meet another challenge. She began losing her hearing. She got a hearing aid and learned to read lips, but nothing helped her listen to little children’s hearts beating through her stethoscope. So, she learned to listen with her hands, gently placing her fingers on a child’s chest and feeling for murmurs.
Her specialty became congenital heart defects. While rare, there are quite a few types of malformed hearts babies may have. Some they grow out of, others lead to death if not fixed. With improved chest x-rays and EKG’s she was able to keep records of baby’s hearts while they lived and then if they died, note the malformations from autopsies. Taussig became particularly interested in blue baby syndrome, also known as tetralogy of Fallot. These babies have a malformed heart that prevents them from getting enough oxygen, causing them to turn blue. These children often died as infants, and those that survived longer could be confined to wheelchairs.
Taussig discovered that blue babies had decreased pulmonary blood flow to the lungs, reducing available oxygen throughout the body. As she observed the surgery of another heart defect, she thought of a solution. This surgery had the opposite problem of blue babies. Too much blood was cycled through the lungs due to an artery failing to close properly. In 1939 when she watched a doctor attempting to correct this problem by removing a duct (an extra blood vessel connecting two arteries), she realized adding a duct might solve blue babies lack of oxygen. She went to the surgeon and asked him to consider adding such a duct. He viewed her idea as a pipe dream and refused to look into it.
The idea didn’t leave her and in 1942 she observed Dr. Alfred Blalock perform the same surgery. Afterward she sought him out and said, “Dr. Blalock, you’ve done a very nice job closing this ductus; why can’t you build a ductus?...To some of our cyanotic children, it would mean a life for them.”
Blalock didn’t totally dismiss the idea, but set up a meeting between Taussig, himself and his surgical technician, Vivien Thomas. Thomas remembered the meeting in his autobiography:
- Helen passionately described her patients and their plight and that no known medical treatment existed. She went on to suggest that their only hope was a type of surgical approach to ‘get more blood to the lungs,' as a plumber changes the pipes around.
The challenge was accepted and the three began working on the problem. Vivien Thomas set about learning how to re-arrange the blood’s plumbing by operating on dogs, who had blood vessels twice the size of a sick child. Two years later, they were ready and Dr. Blalock performed the first surgery with Thomas hovering behind him. Sitting in the gallery was Taussig.
The surgery was incredibly complicated and delicate with the 15-month-old girl’s small blood vessels. The idea was to join the pulmonary artery to a systemic artery carrying oxygenated blood. It seemed to work. The little girl’s skin became pink and she survived for two months, before dying. But thereafter, the successes came. Soon, parents were bringing their blue babies from all over the country. So Taussig and Blalock started traveling all over the world, teaching doctors how to perform the operation.
Vivien Thomas, due to being an African-American, was left behind and also left off their published results, and left off the name given to the procedure – the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Only much later did doctors begin referring to it as the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt to recognize that it was a three-person collaboration that cured blue babies. It became a standard operation with a 99% success rate for one year survival, and a 95% success rate for 25 year survival.Helen Taussig was not finished. In the 1950s there was an epidemic in Europe of children born with severe limb defects. Learning of it from a colleague, she went to Germany to try to discover the underlying cause. Her research helped to find that it was a drug being given to pregnant women – thalidomide. Back then, drugs weren’t screened before being given to pregnant women. Thousands of children were born with these defects and 40% of them died. Taussig returned to the U.S., published her findings and testified before congress on the dangers of thalidomide. With the help of her testimony, it was never approved in the U.S. and soon disappeared all over the world.
Then as if to proclaim women belonged in science, Dr. Helen Taussig became the first woman to become the president of the American Heart Association.
Lives Saved: Over 1,000,000
Helen Taussig recalled
I suppose nothing would ever give me as much delight as seeing the first patient change from blue to pink in the operating room... bright pink cheeks and bright lips.
In 1947 Blalock and Taussig gave a lecture in the great hall of the British Medical Association in London. The hall was darkened and a spotlight shone on a small cherub-like 2-year-old girl with a halo of blonde curly hair and looking pink and well. She had been operated on by Blalock a week earlier.... no one there could possibly forget it. It was electrifying.
Taussig kept a letter on her mantelpiece from 12-year-old Jean-Pierre Cablan, who had the procedure
"I am now a completely new boy... I will be able to play with the other children."
Hugh Michael Edenburn walked into the atrium at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center
“Do you know who Vivien Thomas is?” he asked the nurses and doctors he encountered along the hospital’s hallways. “How about Helen Taussig?” Then he revealed, to their astonishment, who he was. He was Blue Baby #44. In 1945, knowing her son’s condition was terminal, his mother read of the new infant surgery in Collier’s magazine. She carted her son from Iowa to Baltimore for the revolutionary surgery. Now, 73 years later, Hugh Edenburn had returned. Asked why, he said, “I wanted to see the Christ statue and the portrait of Vivien Thomas….It’s really emotional for me.”
Women in Science: Helen Taussig
Helen Taussig’s Wikipedia Page