Friday, February 18th, 2011

Black History Month: Vivien Thomas — Black and blue

I haven’t heard anything about blue babies in a long time.  I was familiar with the term when I was a child, maybe because I grew up in a doctor’s home. I didn’t know what it was, except that it was bad.

Blue baby syndrome is a congenital malformation of the heart. The resulting lack of oxygen causes the child’s extremities to be blue. Until the 1940s, blue baby syndrome was a death sentence.

In 1944, Dr. Alfred Blalock of Johns Hopkins announced that the development of a tiny valve device and pioneering surgery could now save the life of a blue baby. We can imagine the drama and acclaim that erupted around him.

A couple of years ago, I happened on a DVD that gives the credit due to the man who worked with Dr. Blalock. Something the Lord Made portrays the vital role Vivien Thomas played in that lifesaving breakthrough.

Thomas had dreamed of becoming a doctor himself, but the 1929 stock market crash left him with no funds to study beyond high school. He took work as a lab assistant, doing mostly menial clean-up work. When Blalock realized Thomas’s intelligence and yearning to learn, he gradually advanced him to the work that a doctoral research assistant would be doing. It was unsettling to people to see an African-American man wearing a white lab coat.

When Blalock performed the first blue baby surgery, Vivien Thomas stood on a stool looking over his shoulder, giving instructions. Thomas was the one with surgical experience, having performed this procedure on a number of animals. Dr. Blalock had done it only once before.

To realize how amazing this surgery was, we need to know that at the time, the heart was considered off-limits for surgery.

It was years before Vivien Thomas received credit for his contributions. The 1945 article in time doesn’t mention Thomas. But eventually, he became Supervisor of Surgical Research Laboratories and an Instructor to surgical students at Johns Hopkins.

Today his portrait hangs across from Dr. Blalock’s in the lobby of the Blalock Building at Johns Hopkins.

For more of the story, you can follow links  here and here.

Even more interesting would be to learn the story from Vivien Thomas himself in his autobiography, Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock.

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4 Responses to “Black History Month: Vivien Thomas — Black and blue”

  1. We recently viewed this movie. Outstanding and heartbreaking. What an outstanding man was Vivien Thomas that he should be so dedicated when he received absolutely no recognition. Viewers will weep for this man.

  2. This was a movie truly worth the time to view! I so agree with WhiteStone.

  3. Wonderful movie! Our daughter Jenny (whom Talitha might know from the South campus) had this surgery done when she was 2 months old. This movie touched my life so much and I am grateful for Vivien Thomas. He was such a humble man, who didn’t insist on being first, or insist that he be recognized. He like Jesus said to, do not take the best seat at a banquet, do not put yourselft first, but you will be exalted in the end.

    I cried and cried after the movie and just wanted to hold my baby girl who had this surgery done. (She’s now 14 1/2!) I connected with her again about her whole procedure and what went on. Life is precious and I’m grateful to know that this man got the recognition he deserved in the end.

  4. I just watched the movie, thank you for bring it to my attention.

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