This month we're celebrating Vivien T. Thomas, a man who was not only a cardiac surgery pioneer but who rose to become the instructor of surgery at John Hopkins School of Medicine, without any post-high school education.
Born in 1910 in Louisiana, Thomas grew up with a desire to pursue higher education and become a doctor. His family struggled with poverty and Jim Crow, but Thomas was a dedicated worker and skilled carpenter. He saved diligently for years to put himself through school when the Great Depression wiped out his savings. With his sights still set on college, his life changed in 1930 when he secured a job as a surgical research assistant at Vanderbilt University with Dr. Alfred Blalock, a well-known white surgeon.
Thomas was a quick study, learning how to set up surgeries, perform procedures, carry out experiments, and record data. Overly busy, Blalock increasingly relied on Thomas to run his experiments, granting him greater independence in the lab than most assistants were given. Over time they started working together on experiments and developing surgical techniques, beginning a professional relationship that would last several decades.
In 1941, Blalock was invited to Johns Hopkins and he in turn requested Thomas join him. Seeing opportunity, Thomas agreed and relocated his family to Baltimore. The move was a mixed blessing. Thomas still faced deeply-rooted racism in his new home and rigid segregation at work; the only Black employees at Johns Hopkins at that time were janitors, and he got stares in the hallways when he wore his white lab coat. But Thomas would not be deterred, continuing developing his skills and knowledge.
In 1943, Blalock was approached to develop a surgical solution to a complex heart condition called tetralogy of Fallot that affected babies. He charged Thomas with recreating and correcting the conditional surgically in dogs. It took two years, but when Blalock saw the results of Thomas' work he was convinced it could be tried on humans. The first procedures began soon after. As he did not have a medical degree, Thomas was not allowed to perform the surgery himself, so he stood on a stepstool over Blalock's shoulder to guide him through the procedure. Over several attempts the procedure was a success.
Unfortunately, in the articles and press released afterward, Thomas received no acknowledgement for the work he himself had developed. Credit was given to Blalock and Thomas was routinely left out of photographs and newsreels. This led to an increasingly strained relationship between the two men over the years, as Blalock relied heavily on his work with Thomas, while failing to credit and back him fully.
Thomas continued to excel in his work, developing surgical techniques and training many young surgeons who went on to be at the forefront of medicine, such as Denton Cooley, famous for performing the first implantation of a total artificial heart.
Thomas was well respected by his peers but he struggled to gain wider recognition. Institutional prejudice and limits to the personal tolerance of Blalock led to long-term roadblocks in his career. For many years he worked on a janitors salary and was paid less than white peers performing the same jobs, leaving him struggling to support his family and unable to save enough to afford medical school. At the same time he was pushing forward cardiac surgery and training future surgeons, he was forced to moonlight as a bartender to make ends meet.
In 1976, 35 years after starting there, he received an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins and was appointed as Instructor of Surgery in the medical school. His portrait now hangs next to Blalock's. Several scholarships and lecture series have since been opened in his name and in 2004, a public school in Baltimore bearing his name was opened.
Thomas passed away in 1985 after a long career and struggle fighting for acknowledgement. His work helped change the face of cardiac surgery and saved thousands of lives, and it seems the world was finally paying attention. In 2003, PBS aired a documentary about Thomas, called Partners of the Heart and in 2004 an HBO dramatization, Something the Lord Made, based on his life and partnership with Blalock was released, starring Mos Def and Alan Rickman.
Don’t miss the chance to view the Community Service Learning (CSL) art exhibit, Mental Health is Public Health, on display through February 24th in the Briscoe Library entry area. Featuring original art and poetry created by UTHSCSA students and faculty in association with the Annual CSL Conference, the exhibit includes 12 pieces that exemplify compelling personal experiences from the UT Health campus community on the theme of mental health.
This first annual CSL conference art exhibit was the idea of retired faculty Dr. Kristy Kosub and a team of dedicated students. As pictured, Dr. Kosub and Emily Heydemann install the exhibit just prior to the conference which was held on February 4th. On hand for the February 1st opening reception was one of the exhibit award winners, Jonathan Matthews. An excerpt of his poem, Solace, is shown below along with a picture of Jonathan providing those attending the reception with more insight on the creation of his poetry.
ILLiad, our Interlibrary Loan system, is getting a much needed facelift. The updated pages will offer a modern look with easy navigation.
More details coming soon!