Vivien Thomas was a pioneer in the field of surgery. He worked as a lab technician for Dr. Alfred Blalock, and together they developed a procedure to alleviate a congenital heart defect, the Tetralogy of Fallot, also known as blue baby syndrome.
Vivien T. Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1910, the son of a carpenter. His family moved to Nashville, where Vivien graduated with honors from Pearl High School, one of the country's top high schools. In 1929, as he was preparing for college and medical school, Thomas lost his entire savings when a Nashville bank failed. With no financial support for a college education, he took a job as a laboratory technician at Vanderbilt University Medical School, working for Dr. Alfred Blalock.
After beginning work at Vanderbilt, Thomas still hoped to save money for his own medical degree, but the Depression worsened and the research with Blalock grew. Soon Thomas was working 16 hours a day in the laboratory, performing operations on animals that would advance Blalock's studies of high blood pressure and traumatic shock. For this work, Thomas invented a heavy spring device that could apply varying levels of pressure. Their work at Vanderbilt created a new understanding of shock, showing that shock was linked to a loss of fluid and blood volume.
In 1941, when Blalock left Vanderbilt to become Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins, he insisted that Vivien Thomas be hired to join his team there. At Hopkins, Thomas, Blalock, and Helen Taussig pioneered the field of heart surgery with a procedure to alleviate a congenital heart defect, the Tetralogy of Fallot, also known as blue baby syndrome. Sufferers faced brutally short life expectancies. Working with cardiologist Helen Taussig, Blalock and Thomas developed an operation that would deliver more oxygen to the blood and relieve the constriction caused by the heart defect. Thomas tested the procedure---a refinement of one that they had created in laboratory dogs---to make sure it would work. In 1944, with Thomas advising Blalock, the first "blue baby" operation was successfully performed on a 15-month old child. Vivien was a key partner in hundreds of "blue baby" operations, performing pre- and post-operation procedures on the patients as well as advising in the operating room. At the same time, he continued to manage Blalock's ongoing laboratory research. He also taught a generation of surgeons and lab technicians.
After Blalock died in 1964, Thomas assumed more teaching and administrative responsibilities, and continued to supervise Hopkins surgical research laboratories. In 1971, top surgeons from around the country paid tribute to Vivien Thomas and commemorated his portrait in the Blalock Building at Hopkins. Dr. Rollins Hanlon, former president of the American College of Surgeons, called Thomas' impact on surgery "enormous." After receiving an honorary doctorate from Hopkins, Thomas was appointed to the Medical School faculty. Vivien Thomas died in Baltimore in 1985.
11:01 AM 10/1/2004 *From notes prepared by Harry S. Shelley, M.D., F.A.C.S., Honorary Curator, History of Medicine Collection, Vanderbilt University Medical School, 1967---1991.
Harry S. Shelley, M. D., F.A.C.S.
1901 - 1991