Vivien Thomas dreamed of becoming a doctor from a young age, but most schools in Tennessee were segregated and moreover cost a great deal of money. But he wanted to be as close to the practice of medicine as he could. At a job interview for a research assistant at the Vanderbilt Medical School, he convinced Dr. Alfred Blalock to hire him. Thomas was so good that before long, he was doing his own experiments. He also learned surgical techniques, and “Dr. Blalock was impressed by Vivien’s tiny stitches.”
One day, however, Thomas learned that while white men with his duties were called “research technicians” and earned more money, his official job title was “janitor” and he earned less. He told Dr. Blalock he would quit unless he made the amount commensurate with his actual the job description and a few days later, he noticed his paycheck had increased.
When Dr. Blalock was asked to become Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 1941, he accepted on the condition that Vivien Thomas would be hired also. Thomas and his family had a hard time finding housing in segregated Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins was even more segregated than Vanderbilt had been. But, as the author reports, “Viven refused to let the prejudice of others interfere with his work.”
When a pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Helen Taussig, asked Dr. Blalock to help with the problem of babies born with heart defects, known then as “blue babies,” Blalock assigned Thomas to do the research. Thomas not only came up with the cause but also a solution. He tried out his surgery on research animals, with Dr. Blalock assisting only once. On November 29, 1944, Dr. Taussig asked for help with a baby that would die without immediate surgery. Dr. Blalock had to do the actual surgery but he needed Vivien Thomas to stand on a stool behind him and guide him through the operation.
The baby survived. After two more successful operations, Drs. Blalock and Taussig wrote a paper describing the procedure which they named “the Blalock-Taussig shunt.” They received coverage in Time and Life, but of course Vivien Thomas’s name did not appear anywhere.
Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins got inundated with requests for the surgery, and Thomas remained behind Dr. Blalock on a stool, coaching him through more than one hundred fifty operations.
In 1947, Drs. Blalock and Taussig were nominated for the Nobel prize in Medicine for the procedure.
Vivien Thomas was not publicly acknowledged for his research and surgical innovations until 1971 when a group of doctors he had trained opted to grant him recognition. In 1976, Johns Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate degree and appointed him to the faculty as Instructor of Surgery.
The author concludes: “Today about forty thousand children are born each year with heart problems. Because of Vivien Thomas, these children now have a chance to live full and healthy lives.”
At the end of the book, there is more information about the “blue baby” heart defect (technically “tetralogy of Fallot”) and about Vivien Thomas. In this section, the author mentions some of the people helped and inspired by Thomas, including an elevator operator at Johns Hopkins who, because of Vivien Thomas, became a surgical technician and later the first African American physician’s assistant in the cardiac department at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There is also a small glossary of medical terms, and a list of sources.
Full-page watercolors by Colin Bootman with a muted palette display his usual talent; he excels at showing nuanced emotion.
Evaluation: Without any education past high school, Thomas overcame racism and poverty to become a cardiac surgery pioneer. But the historical and scientific world took a long time to acknowledge his contributions. This book will help show readers a side of racism with which they may not be aware, and perhaps lead them to question how many others have been overlooked because of the color of their skin, or gender, or sexual orientation.
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2016