February 23, 2024

Celebrating Black History Month: Dr. Vivien Thomas

Dr Vivien Thomas

Born on August 29, 1910, in Lake Providence, Louisiana, Vivien Theodore Thomas faced the challenges of the Jim Crow era. His parents, Willard Maceo Thomas and Mary Alice Eaton, moved the family to Nashville, Tennessee, where Vivien attended Pearl High School. He worked to save money for medical school, but the bank collapse of the Depression wiped away his dream.

Thomas’s journey took an unexpected turn when he secured a job at Fisk University as a carpenter. His hands-on experience with carpentry skills would later prove invaluable in the medical world. Despite lacking formal education beyond high school, Thomas’s determination and innate talent led him to the doorstep of medical history.

In the 1940s, Thomas became the laboratory assistant to surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Together, they embarked on groundbreaking research in Blalock’s experimental animal laboratory. Their collaboration would eventually change the face of cardiac surgery forever.

Thomas’s most significant accomplishment was the development of a surgical procedure to treat blue baby syndrome, now known as cyanotic heart disease. This condition caused inadequate oxygenation of the blood, resulting in a bluish skin color. Thomas’s ingenuity led to the creation of the Blalock-Taussig shunt, a surgical technique that improved blood flow and saved countless lives. Drs. Blalock and Taussig were lauded for this groundbreaking technique, but Thomas was not officially credited with his role in creating the life-saving procedure. 

Despite racial prejudice and limited opportunities, Thomas did not let poverty and racism hold him back. For 35 years, he served as the supervisor of surgical laboratories at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. His impact extended far beyond the laboratory, as he trained a generation of doctors in innovative surgical techniques.

In 1976, Johns Hopkins awarded Thomas an honorary Doctor of Law (LL.D.) and named him an Instructor of Surgery. His legacy lives on through the surgeons he mentored and the lives he touched. A PBS documentary, Partners of the Heart, and the HBO movie Something the Lord Made tell his story. Thomas died of pancreatic cancer in 1985. 

Vivien Thomas’s journey from carpentry to cardiac surgery exemplifies resilience, determination, and the power of human potential. Thomas set his course to learn and practice the medical science he grew to love. His legacy continues to inspire generations of medical professionals.