The Unseen Story

In 1929, Vivien Thomas was getting ready to go to college and eventually medical school when the stock market crashed taking all his savings — including his tuition — along with it. With no way to fund his schooling, Thomas took a job as lab technician at Vanderbilt University’s medical school, working for Dr. Alfred Blalock.

Thomas always intended to save his wages from the job to go to medical school, but the Great Depression grew, as did his responsibilities with Blalock, who quickly had Thomas performing dozens of surgical experiments on animals that furthered his research on high blood pressure and traumatic shock. Soon Thomas and Blalock were more of a team than boss and assistant. Although Thomas faced intense racial prejudice, Blalock continued to support him and ensure there was a position for Thomas anywhere he went. The pair’s work on shock led to new understandings of the condition, and earned Blalock a position as Chief of Surgery at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins. He insisted that they hire Thomas, too. It was there that Thomas developed a successful surgical procedure to treat blue baby syndrome. After performing more than 200 surgeries on dogs, Thomas convinced Blalock the procedure was ready for humans, and talked the surgeon through the operation on an 18-month old girl. That girl ultimately died, but subsequent surgeries resulted in full recovery.

Blalock and cardiologist Helen Taussig got the credit for the procedure, which eventually became known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Thomas was never mentioned in any of the published articles on the procedure, but the surgeons he trained, first in Blalock’s lab and then as director of the surgical research laboratories at Johns Hopkins, eventually became chiefs of surgery at hospitals throughout the U.S., and they made it a point to do right by Thomas. In 1976, Thomas was awarded an honorary doctorate and, finally, officially appointed a faculty member at Johns Hopkins. Today, incoming medical students at Johns Hopkins are divided into four colleges, each named for a faculty member that had a major impact on medical history, one of which is Vivien Thomas.