Vivien Thomas was an African-American lab supervisor who developed a procedure to treat blue baby syndrome. Blue baby syndrome is a condition wherein newborn babies have bluishness in their bodies owing to congenital heart conditions. Born at a time when racism was at its peak, Thomas struggled hard to emerge as one of the leading cardiac surgery pioneers of his time. He worked as the assistant to Alfred Blalock, a famous heart surgeon at Vanderbilt University and later at Johns Hopkins University. He then continued as the supervisor of surgical laboratories in Johns Hopkins for nearly 35 years. Though he had supervised multiple heart surgeries and taught various world-famous heart surgeons, he was never allowed to operate on a living human being directly as he didn’t have the necessary qualification to conduct it. After his retirement, he started working on his autobiography titled ‘Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock’. In 2004, an HBO movie named ‘Something the Lord Made,’ which was based on the life of Vivien Thomas, was aired. Mos Def, an American actor, portrayed the role of Vivien in this movie.
Early Life & Childhood
Vivien Theodore Thomas was born on August 29, 1910, in New Iberia, Louisiana, as the son of Mary and William Maceo Thomas. His grandfather was a slave and his childhood was spent in poverty.
He graduated with honors from Pearl High School in Nashville in 1929. He wished to attend college but couldn’t due to the Great Depression. Instead, he started working as a carpenter at Vanderbilt University but lost his job soon enough. He then enrolled himself as a premedical student in Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College.
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While Vivien Thomas was enrolled in Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, he had to abandon his education midway owing to the stock market crash of 1930. In the same year, he joined as a surgical research assistant under Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. Within a short span of time, he started doing surgery on his own on animals.
Between 1930 and 1941, Thomas and Blalock did groundbreaking research looking into the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. This work later evolved into research on crush syndrome and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of World War II.
During this period, both Blalock and Thomas started experimenting on vascular and cardiac surgeries, opposing various medical taboos against operating on the heart. It was this study that later helped them in performing the groundbreaking blue baby operation in Johns Hopkins.
In 1941, Thomas followed Dr. Blalock to Baltimore when the latter was appointed as the chair of surgery at The Johns Hopkins Medical School. It was at Hopkins that Thomas continued his research and was directly involved in the development of the Blalock-Taussig shunt used in blue baby operations.
The grounds for the first blue baby operation were set in 1943 when the renowned pediatric cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig approached Blalock to seek a solution for the blue baby syndrome. Blalock assigned the responsibility to Thomas for creating blue-baby-like conditions in dogs and then correcting it by a procedure.
Thomas took two years and nearly two hundred dogs to demonstrate to Taussig and Blalock that the surgery was safe to be performed on humans.
The first blue baby operation was performed in 1944, in which Thomas was standing on a stool guiding Blalock in performing the procedure successfully. When the procedure was published in the following year, Thomas' name was never mentioned and the credit for the entire procedure was taken up by Blalock and Taussig.
In 1946, Thomas developed another surgical technique that helped in improving blood circulation in patients whose aorta and pulmonary arteries were transposed. The procedure was conducted so effortlessly and with such dexterity that Blalock appreciated him tremendously. After examining the undetectable suture lines, he went on to say the famous statement “Vivien, this looks like something the Lord made”.
He continued to work in Johns Hopkins for 33 more years and in 1976, the university presented him with an honorary doctorate. Owing to certain restrictions, he was given an Honorary Doctor of Laws, not a medical doctorate. He was also appointed as an Instructor of Surgery.
Post his retirement in 1979, he started working on his autobiography that was published just after his death.
Family & Personal Life
In 1933, Vivien Thomas married Clara Flanders Thomas and had two daughters, Theodosia and Olga.
He died on November 26, 1985, due to pancreatic cancer.
Post his death, various awards and scholarships were given in his name to deserving people, such as the Vivien Thomas Young Investigator Awards that was started in 1996. It is given by the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery and Anesthesiology.
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Institute gives the Vivien Thomas Scholarship for Medical Science and Research in his honor.
In his remembrance, the Baltimore City Public School system opened the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy in 2004.