Labeled as one of the most un-talked about, unappreciated, unknown giants in the African-American community, Vivien Thomas rose above poverty and racism to become one of the first pioneers in the field of cardiac heart surgery.
Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1910. Later on, his family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he obtained a diploma at New Pearl High School, graduating with honors. Thomas made it his lifelong goal to head off to college to become a doctor. Unfortunately the Great Depression had wiped out his savings and forced Thomas to abandon his dreams.
In February 1930, Thomas obtained a janitorial position working for Dr. Alfred Blalock in his lab at Vanderbilt University. Suddenly realizing Thomas’s medical knowledge and talent, Dr. Blalock made him a surgical assistant to help with his study on the causes and treatment of traumatic shock. Thomas’s skills as a surgeon and as a research assistant were unmatchable. So much so that when Dr. Blalock transferred to John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, he had to take Thomas with him.
In 1943, renowned pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Helen Taussig, who was desperately looking for a surgical solution to Blue Baby Syndrome, approached Blalock. Through extensive research, Blalock and Thomas realized the answer in a procedure they had perfected for shock treatment that would cause the increase of blood flow to the lungs. Thomas had to first recreate blue baby syndrome in a dog. In over two years of laboratory work along with designing the necessary equipment for the procedure, Thomas was able to successfully recreate the syndrome as well as the surgery needed to correct it.
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In November of 1944, the very first human ‘blue baby’ surgery would take place. Due to prejudice and segregation at that time, Thomas was not allowed to operate on a white patient. But at the demanding request of Dr. Blalock, Thomas was able to watch the surgery, situated at Blalock’s side. Thomas’s procedure was such a success, that they performed 200 more surgeries that year alone.
With the success of their discovery, Thomas soon became in charge of training the countries newest surgeons at John Hopkins. It wasn’t until the 1960’s, however, that Thomas finally received the recognition he deserved for his research with Dr. Blalock. In 1976, John Hopkins presented Thomas with an Honorary Doctorate of Law. And after 37 years, he was finally appointed to the medical school faculty.
At the height of segregation in the United States, an unlikely partnership between a stubborn surgeon and a young black man led to some of the biggest pioneering medical breakthroughs of the century. Not only was Thomas so successful in his endeavors, he also paved the way for many African Americans to attend medical school.