An African American Medical Pioneer’s Rise to the Top
Vivien Thomas never went to medical school to realize his dream of becoming a doctor. He did, however, supervise one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of our times: the first successful heart surgery. Though his story is seldom told, no list of Top Ten Famous African Americans is complete without his name.
Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana, in 1910. He grew up and attended public schools in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1929, he enrolled as a premed student at the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College but had to drop out when a bank crash wiped out all his hard-earned savings. After that, he took a job as a lab assistant at Vanderbilt University, working with Dr. Alfred Blalock. Together they made giant strides in the science of treating shock, saving the lives of literally millions of soldiers in WW II with the new treatment protocols they designed.
Dr. Blalock and Vivien Thomas Join Forces
Later, Dr. Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins Hospital and asked Thomas to join him. At the time, prejudice was so engrained in American society that Thomas was not even allowed to walk in the front door of the hospital; he had to use a back service entry. And though he was doing the advanced work of a medical research scientist and surgical assistant, his job designation and pay grade were that of janitor.
At Johns Hopkins, Blalock and Thomas turned their considerable talents to the problem of “blue babies”: children born with a congenital heart defect that did not allow their lungs to properly oxygenate their blood, turning their skin a faint shade of blue. Working with dogs in the lab, Blalock and Thomas perfected a surgical technique that repaired the defect. This was no small feat. Until then, medical science saw the heart as sacrosanct. Surgery on the heart was simply considered impossible.
Using a specialized clamp designed by Vivien Thomas, and with Thomas standing behind him and giving him guidance, Blalock preformed the first anastomosis surgery on November 29, 1944. It was not only successful; it was groundbreaking. The tragic problem of blue babies was finally solved, and the way was now clear for the development of other life-saving open-heart surgeries. Despite his fundamental contribution, at the time, Vivien Thomas was not recognized. Newspaper and magazine articles lauding the event did not mention his name.
Thomas stayed at Johns Hopkins for over 35 years where he helped train many of its surgeons in the delicate techniques needed for heart surgery. He was eventually appointed the head of the hospital’s surgical research laboratory and in 1976 became a surgery instructor at Johns Hopkins University.
The Vivien Thomas BIO – Closing Comments
Unlike many pioneering African-American scientists and inventors, Vivien Thomas lived long enough to see his contributions to medical science acknowledged. Eventually his name became, rightfully, linked with the groundbreaking heart surgeries he helped develop and, in 1976, Johns Hopkins University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
He finally had the degree he had earned, not in the classroom, but through actual medical experience. Now, his portrait hangs in the very entryway of Johns Hopkins Hospital where he was once not even allowed to walk.
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