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Video: Episode 3: Vivien Thomas
Presented by: Meghan Grubb, MA, MS
Welcome to Episode Three of the Diverse Scientist Highlights Series! If you have not yet watched our Introductory Episode for this series, please do so before watching this episode. Our Introductory Episode defines diversity and the importance of having a diverse work force. It also explains why we created the Diverse Scientist Highlights series. Be sure to check it out before continuing!
During this episode of the series, prepare to learn about Vivien Thomas, an American laboratory supervisor who became a cardiac surgery pioneer.
Vivien Thomas was born in Louisiana in 1910 to Mary and William Thomas. He graduated with honors from Pearl High School in Nashville in 1929 with the intention to attend college and become a doctor. However, the Great Depression prevented him from achieving this goal.
Instead, he worked at Vanderbilt University in the summer of 1929 doing carpentry, but was laid off come fall. Also in 1929, Thomas enrolled in the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, now known as Tennessee State University. He majored as a premedical student. Unfortunately, Thomas’ plans were derailed again due to the stock market crash in October. Putting school on hold, he secured a job as a surgical research technician with Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University.
Although Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor, he assisted Blalock in surgical experiments on dogs, doing the work of a postdoctoral researcher in the lab.
As a research surgical technician, Thomas performed groundbreaking research with Blalock into the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. In 1914, Blalock became Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins and Thomas accompanied him. Their research later evolved into research on crush syndrome, which saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of World War II. In 1943, Blalock was approached by pediatric cardiologist who was seeking a surgical solution to a complex and fatal four-part heart anomaly called tetralogy of Fallot also known as blue baby syndrome. Thomas took on the task of creating a blue baby-like condition in a dog model, and then worked to correct the condition by means of the pulmonary-to-subclavian anastomosis. Anna, one of the dogs Thomas operated on, was the first long-term survivor of the operation and the only animal to have her portrait hung on the walls of Johns Hopkins. Thomas eventually was able to demonstrate that the corrective procedure was not lethal and persuaded Blalock that it could be safely attempted on human patients.
It is obvious that Vivien Thomas was an impressive man who helped the progression of cardiac research, but why are we highlighting him as a diverse scientist?
Blalock was so impressed with Thomas’ work and discovery, that he allowed Thomas to operate with him on patients receiving the corrective procedure even though he was not allowed to operate on account of his race.
There were many obstacles Thomas had to overcome because of the color of his skin. When he moved to Baltimore with Blalock to work at Johns Hopkins, he faced more discrimination due to the rigid segregation of the city. The only African American employees at Johns Hopkins were janitors, and Thomas had to receive janitor pay regardless of his work as a lab technician. Also, he originally did not receive any recognition for his contribution to the groundbreaking research he did with Blalock. However, in 1946, he became the highest paid technician at John Hopkins and later the director of surgical research laboratories. In 1976, Thomas was presented with an honorary doctorate and appointed to the faculty of the School of Medicine as Instructor of Surgery after working at Hopkins for 37 years.
In 1985, at the age of 75 years, Thomas passed away, just a few days before the publication of his autobiography, Partners of the Heart, was released. Thomas’s impact and life-saving corrective procedure made him a legend in cardiology. His contributions were recognized in the 2004 American made-for-television biographical drama film called Something the Lord Made, which captured his life as a black cardiac pioneer. In addition, the Vivien Thomas Fund was established at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, honoring the memory of Vivien Thomas by removing for others the economic and racial barriers that often stood in his way. The creation of this fund also helped increase the diversity within the school of medicine. In 2004, the Baltimore City Public School System opened the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, a high school that caters to students who are economically disadvantaged and prepares them for success in college. Cheers to Vivien Thomas, our third diverse scientist!