The short story of Vivien Thomas

“In addition to teaching us a trade, my father taught us the economics of life – the fact that nothing in life is completely free.” – Vivien Thomas

Born on August 29, 1910, in Lake Providence, Louisiana, and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Vivien Thomas grew up in a society deeply segregated by race. Yet, while the challenges of racism were there and would be for many years after, Vivien learned life lessons early that helped him overcome challenges. One lesson was hard work. Vivien would say,

“My father took advantage of the propensity of boys to hammer on things and brought us up in his own trade of carpentry. Beside contracting the building of entire houses, he also took on repairs, additions to, and the remodeling of existing structures. He never kept us out of school for a day of work, but we were required to report after school hours to whatever job he had in progress. Our school hours were from 8am to 2pm, so we had from 3pm to 5:30pm to work. We also worked from 7am until noon on Saturdays. During the summer, daily work hours were from 7am to 5:30pm. I began reporting for work when I was thirteen.”

Another lesson, in his words: “I…learned the lesson which I still remember and try to adhere to: whatever you do, always do your best.”

Along with learning the importance of hard work early on, Vivien grew up in a family that placed a strong emphasis on education. He excelled in school and, from a young age, dreamt of becoming a doctor. However, upon graduating high school, Vivien faced the realities of life at the beginning of the Great Depression. As he planned to start college, his education focus shifted to finances after his bank closed and Vivien lost all his savings. At that point, he looked for a job.

Employment opportunities were scarce then, especially for black Americans. But with the help of a friend, Vivien took a job at Vanderbilt University, working as a surgical research assistant in the laboratory of Dr. Alfred Blalock. There, he worked long hours assisting with experiments, some days working in the lab for up to sixteen hours. Vivien quickly became an indispensable part of Alfred’s team. With no formal medical training but an uncanny ability to understand complex surgical procedures and techniques, Vivien began assisting Alfred in various experiments. Their work led to groundbreaking research around shock, which led to research on crush syndrome that would save the lives of many soldiers during World War 2.

In 1941, when Alfred was offered a position at Johns Hopkins University, he insisted on bringing Vivien with him. There, they continued conducting research. Upon their move, Alfred and Vivien were confronted with a medical challenge that had confounded doctors for years: the “blue baby syndrome.” Babies afflicted with this condition displayed a blueish tint to their skin due to a congenital heart defect that prevented their blood from being adequately oxygenated. It was at Johns Hopkins that Alfred and Vivien crossed paths with Dr. Helen Taussig, a pioneering pediatric cardiologist. Helen had observed numerous cases of blue baby syndrome and was desperate for a surgical solution.

She approached Alfred with her observations and the idea of developing a surgical procedure to remedy the condition. While Alfred was initially skeptical, Vivien’s surgical expertise and innovative approach made this idea a reality. In the laboratory, Vivien began experimenting on dogs to create a heart condition mimicking the blue baby syndrome. Through trials, errors, and refinements, he developed a procedure that redirected blood flow, increasing oxygenation. This procedure became known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt.

Vivien’s role was broader than just the research stage. He crafted the specialized surgical tools required for the operation and trained Alfred and his team on the intricacies of the procedure. In fact, during the first-ever surgery on a human patient in 1944, Vivien stood behind Alfred, guiding him step-by-step through the groundbreaking operation. The surgery was successful, and the child’s blueish tint faded, replaced by a healthy pink glow.

Throughout these experiences, Vivien had to deal with the racial climate of the time. He was often underpaid, working in segregated environments, and not appropriately credited for his contributions. And he never ended up going to college. But he continued to work hard, mastering his craft. He became so good at his work that one surgeon remarked, “Even if you’d never seen surgery before, you could do it because Vivien made it look so simple.”

In 1976, Johns Hopkins University awarded Vivien an honorary doctorate and named him an instructor of surgery for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He became a teacher of operative techniques to many of the most prominent surgeons in the U.S.


Notes:

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“The short story of Vivien Thomas” sources:

  • Thomas, Vivien (1985). Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and his Work with Alfred Blalock. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7989-1
  • Timmermans, Stefan. “A Black Technician and Blue Babies.” Social Studies of Science, vol. 33, no. 2, 2003, pp. 197–229. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3183077. Accessed 1 Nov. 2023.