The short story of Vivien Thomas

As a teenager growing up in Nashville in the 1920s, Vivien Thomas hoped to become a doctor. But the Great Depression kept that dream from coming to be. As he planned to start college, his education focus shifted to finances and he looked for a job.

Vivien found work as a surgical research assistant at Vanderbilt University, working with surgeon Alfred Blalock. There he worked long hours assisting with experiments, some days working in the lab for up to sixteen hours. But their work led to groundbreaking research around shock, which led to research on crush syndrome that would save the lives of thousands of soldiers during World War 2. 

Vivien Thomas
Vivien Thomas

In the early 1940’s, Vivien moved with Alfred to Johns Hopkins University. There they continued conducting research. Working together with Dr. Helen Taussig, they discovered a treatment for Blue Baby Syndrome. Vivien was instrumental to preparing experiments and for the surgery itself. 

Throughout these experiences, Vivien had to deal with the racial climate of the time. He was often underpaid, working in segregated environments, not being credited appropriately 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.

Note: If you enjoyed this snapshot biography of Vivien Thomas, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a donation. Visit our Patreon page to donate. Your support is very much appreciated. 

“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 / Wikimedia Commons