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STEM Celebrity Spotlight: Vivien Thomas

By Clare Schinzel


The 1930s were a troubling time in American history. The stock market crash destroyed jobs, family lifestyles, and the opulence of the twenties as a whole. But through the cracks of this awful decade, certain individuals managed to hone their skills and fight against the segregated blocks of society. Vivien Thomas proved that this period wasn’t an endless cycle of disappointment. As an African-American, he was a trailblazing surgeon who laid the foundation of modern cardiac surgery procedures as we know them today.


Born in Lake Providence, Louisiana in 1910, Thomas faced many race-related hardships as the grandson of a slave living in the South. Although he attended and graduated with honors from Nashville’s Pearl High School in 1929, racial tension prevented him from pursuing higher education. Undeterred and desperate for work after the stock market crash that October, Thomas accepted a laboratory assistant job with Dr. Alfred Balock at Vanderbilt University in 1930.


Blalock took Thomas under his wing: he assured that the young assistant was well-versed in anatomy and physiology. Thomas’s new knowledge allowed him to master complex surgery techniques and research methods. Unfortunately, because of how widely accepted racism was, Thomas was only paid as a janitor despite his work making him equivalent to the role of a postdoctoral researcher.


Together, the duo investigated hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. Later, the research aided in treating Crush syndrome, which saved thousands of lives in World War II. Blalock and Thomas dismissed the arbitrary medical rule that pushed against opening up the heart. Their heart exploratories gave the reassurance and experience needed for the lifesaving surgeries they would perform nearly a decade later at Johns Hopkins. Due to their groundbreaking work, Blalock accepted the position of Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1941 where he asked Thomas to accompany him.


In 1943, Thomas and Blalock were contacted by pediatric cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig. Taussig was investigating a surgical method that could combat a fatal four-part heart disfigurement called the Tetralogy of Fallot. Accepting the challenge, Thomas’ first task was to induce cyanosis (a leading symptom of the Tetralogy of Fallot) in a dog and then right the condition using a pulmonary-to-subclavian anastomosis. Two hundred dogs later, Blalock and Thomas determined that the procedure would not be lethal to a human patient. Because of his thorough practice with dog patients, Thomas stood behind Blalock during the first surgery, guiding him through the procedure. The following year, the procedure was published in the May edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association. However, Blalock and Taussig were the only ones credited for the new surgical methodology.


Even after being dismissed so blatantly, Thomas continued with surgical work. He trained a large group of young surgeons in the 1940s and developed a reputation for being a precise and efficient surgeon. Frank Spencer, Rowena Specher, Alex Haller, and many other famous surgeons credited their training to Thomas, claiming he made the most complicated surgeries look simple with his skill. Despite all of his skills, Thomas still received janitorial pay until Blalock was able to negotiate for higher pay, eventually becoming the highest-paid technician at Johns Hopkins by 1946.


After Blalock’s death, Thomas opted to stay at Johns Hopkins, eventually becoming the director of Surgical Research Laboratories. He used his opportunities to train African American lab technicians and Johns Hopkins's first black cardiac resident, Dr. Levi Watkins. Thomas aided his work in the adaptation of the Automatic Implantable defibrillator.


Ready to finally recognize his work, Johns Hopkins University awarded Thomas with an honorary doctorate. But because of race-related restrictions, his doctorate was in law, rather than medical work. Thomas retired in 1979, and later wrote his autobiography Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock. Thomas died on November 26, 1985, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Even with his tragic death, his autobiography brought hope to many aspiring black surgeons, and his pioneering work in surgery and rise to the top through racial tensions provided a much-needed positive story in the wake of the Great Depression. Thomas should be remembered as a trailblazer and incredible surgeon, and hopefully, with the walls he tore down, many other minorities can follow in his footsteps.


Works Cited

Admin. “Vivien T. Thomas.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University,

20 Aug. 2018, medschool.vanderbilt.edu/mstp/person/vivien-t-

thomas/.

"Vivien Thomas." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia

Foundation, 13 Aug. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki

/Vivien_Thomas.





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