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Reply #67: Vivien Thomas, surgical pioneer (1910-1985) [View All]

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Brewman_Jax Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-08-07 04:14 PM
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67. Vivien Thomas, surgical pioneer (1910-1985)

Vivien T. Thomas was a surgical technician and Supervisor of Surgical Research Laboratories at Johns-Hopkins. He was a key player in pioneering the anastomosis of the subclavian artery to the pulmonary artery. The surgical work he performed with Alfred Blalock paved the way for the successful outcome of the Blalock-Taussig shunt in the 1940's. He did the main body of research and designing of the procedure, but the virulent racism of the time shut him out of both professional and financial recognition.

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. He started out working for Alfred Blalock, MD, in his lab at Vanderbilt University. 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 37 years, Thomas was appointed to the faculty at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Leaving an indelible mark, he became instructor emeritus of surgery. At age 75, Dr. Vivien Thomas died in Baltimore.

A note about the stunning irony of those times. Though earning low wages, Thomas performed and guided surgeries, designed instruments needed to perform surgery on blue babies, did innovative work on the defibrillator, and taught surgical techniques to surgeons. He also moonlighted as a bartender to support his family. In 1960, Blalock celebrated his 60th birthday, and while 500 people attended, Thomas, a colleague for over 30 years, was not invited--which would never have happened had Thomas not been black.

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