Celebrating Black Heroes: Vivien Thomas

Celebrating Black Heroes: Vivien Thomas

(1910-1985)

We’re celebrating black heroes who made history, and I want to introduce you to Vivien Thomas, the grandson of a slave who became a heart surgery pioneer.

In 1930, Thomas became a laboratory assistant for Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. However, because of institutional racism, he was classified and paid as a janitor. Nevertheless, Thomas rapidly mastered complex surgical techniques and research methodology. 

Thomas rapidly mastered complex surgical techniques and research methodology. 

In 1941, Blalock became Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins and Thomas accompanied him. It was there that Thomas and Blalock created a solution for “blue baby syndrome.” In the 1940s, operating on the heart was unthinkable. However, Thomas created a blue baby-like condition in a dog, then corrected the condition through heart surgery. Over two years, he successfully performed the procedure on over 200 dogs. 

In 1944, the first procedure on a human baby was successful. Thomas coached Blalock throughout the operation from a step-stool. However, Thomas received no credit from Blalock or the medical field. 

It took more than 25 years before Thomas received public recognition for his role in creating the Blue Baby surgery.

It took more than 25 years before Thomas received public recognition for his role in creating the Blue Baby surgery. In 1976, Johns Hopkins University awarded him an honorary doctorate and established the Vivien Thomas Fund to increase diversity at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, thus honoring his memory by removing for others the economic and racial barriers that often stood in his way.

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