The most untalked about, unappreciated, unknown giant in the African American community
[b. 1910 – d. 1985]
Vivien Thomas received an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1976, and while this was undoubtedly memorable, the decades which preceded this moment were equally unforgettable. In Nashville, TN, this high school honors graduate dreamed of becoming a physician. Thomas, a skilled carpenter, saved for seven years to pay for his education. However, he lost his savings during the Great Depression. In 1930, he was hired as a janitor in the laboratory at Vanderbilt University. There he met Dr. Alfred Blalock, a white physician who became a pioneer in cardiac surgery. Blalock mentored Thomas and taught him to conduct experiments.
In 1941, Blalock transferred to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and asked Thomas to transfer as well. While at Hopkins, they developed a procedure to save “blue babies” afflicted with congenital heart defects. According to Partners of the Heart, Thomas often “stood on a step stool” behind Blalock, guiding the surgeon through surgery. Though earning low wages, Thomas performed surgeries, designed instruments needed to perform surgery on “blue babies,” did innovative work on the defibrillator, and taught surgical techniques to surgeons. He also moonlighted as a bartender to support his family.
In 1960, Blalock celebrated his 60th birthday, and while 500 people attended, Thomas, a colleague for over 30 years, was not invited. After 37 years, Thomas was appointed to the faculty at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Leaving an indelible mark, he became instructor emeritus of surgery. At age 75, Dr. Vivien Thomas died in Baltimore.
“Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock” Penn University Press