Black History Month: Medical Pioneer Vivien T. Thomas

Thomas’ 1969 portrait by Bob Gee

Vivien T. Thomas

With no formal education beyond high school, Vivien T. Thomas developed a procedure to treat cyanotic heart disease (Blue Baby Syndrome) and became a pioneer in the field of cardiac surgery.  He was born in 1910 in New Iberia, Louisiana, and later attended high school in Nashville, Tennessee.  He had plans to attend college and become a doctor, but those plans never materialized due to the stock market crash in 1929. 

He secured work as a surgical research assistant with Dr. Alfred Blalock in his animal research laboratory at Vanderbilt University.  Within weeks Thomas was beginning surgeries on his own.  Despite being classified and paid as a janitor, Thomas assisted Dr. Blalock with ground-breaking medical discoveries and helped establish him as a leader in American surgery.  When Dr. Blalock became Chief of Surgery at John Hopkins, he requested that Thomas accompany him. 

Vivien Thomas in the lab

At John Hopkins, Thomas developed a complicated surgical procedure on a dog named Anna that ultimately formed the basis for surgery to correct cyanotic heart disease in infants.  When Blalock saw the result of Thomas’ surgical work, he reportedly said, “Vivien, this looks like something the Lord made.” 

Ultimately, Thomas became Director of Surgical Research Laboratories at John Hopkins, taught cardiac surgery, and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws.  His work in the field of surgery is renowned although he never held a medical degree and never operated on a live patient.  He died in 1985 of pancreatic cancer.  In 2004 his career was chronicled in an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning film entitled “Something the Lord Made”.

Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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