Biography - Vivian Theadore Thomas
Vivian Theadore Thomas worked for peanuts, although he was the inventor of a piece of apparatus that was used to save the lives of thousands, if not millions of blue babies during the 1940's.
Racism has robbed numerous African Americans of their rightful place in history
Like so many other African Americans of that era, racism, prejudice and fear robbed Vivian Theodore Thomas of the opportunity to be the best his God given gifts and talents meant for him to be and to be rewarded and recognise for his outstanding achievements in the field of heart surgery during the 1940's.
Vivian Thomas was the grandson of slaves; born on the 29th August 1910 in Iberia, Louisiana.soon after his birth his family moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he attended a racially segregated public school. Although it was not the best America had to offer he managed to receive what could still be considered a decent education up to high school level.
After leaving school, with very little money at his disposal, he worked as a ward orderly in the local hospital to earn enough money for college fees. Unfortunately America’s financial system crashed in 1929 wiping out his savings and with that his ambitions to attend medical school.
The following year he unknowingly began his journey into the history books when he was hired as a laboratory assistant by Dr. Alfred Blalock a heart research scientist and surgeon at the Vanderbilt University. Grand as his job title sounds he was really there to clean the cages and feed the dogs held for experimental purposes. However, as time went on Blalock began to noticed that Vivian had extraordinary hand-eye coordination and was also of high intelligence. This realisation lead him to gradually give him more technical responsibilities within the laboratory, moving him from cleaner to assistant.
Together they performed numerous lab experiments on dogs in their efforts to develop a surgical procedure to correct the ‘blue baby syndrome’, scientifically known as cyanotic heart disease. With no formal medical training he was able to develop intricate surgical techniques using dogs, which over a number of years saved thousands of lives and as a result he gained the reputation within the medical and scientific community as a genius with superior surgical skills.
By 1940, their work together placed Blalock at the forefront and cutting edge of American surgery and in 1941 he was offered a Chief of surgery position at his Alma Mater, John Hopkins hospital. He accepted the position but insisted that Vivian was also employed. Vivien recalls in his autobiography (Partners of the heart) that when he arrived he was the only black employee who did not work on the janitorial staff and walking down the corridor in a white lab coat was enough to make heads turn.
Two years later, in 1943 Blalock was approached by paediatric surgeon Dr. Helen Taussig who at the time was desperately looking for a surgical solution to the ‘blue baby syndrome’. According to Vivien Thomas’s account in his autobiography she suggested that it might be possible if the pipes were reconnected in such a way that it would increase the blood flow to the lungs.
After listening to her, Blalock and Thomas realised that a few years before, whilst still at Vanderbilt University they had worked on and perfected a surgical procedure using dogs which had a strong possibility of working. Thomas persuaded Blalock that the procedure would not be life-threatening and had a good chance of being successful in humans.
On the 29th November 1944 the first operation was undertaken on an 18 month old baby named Eileen Saxon, using an instrument made by Thomas constructed from needles and clamps used in their dog experiments. Because he was an African American he was not allowed to operate on a white person, although he was in fact the fittest person to do so. Blalock insisted that he was present in the operating theatre during the operation and devised a way that would serve his own purpose and satisfy the powers that be. During the operation Blalock had Thomas stand on a stool looking over his shoulders, directing him what he needed to do.
Although the child eventually died, the operation did in fact prolong her life by several months. Shortly thereafter, undeterred the same operation was performed on an eleven year old girl, this time with complete success as she was able to leave the hospital after three weeks. Operation number three was on a six year old boy who dramatically regained a healthy colour during the actual the operation. These three cases formed the basis of an articled in one of the leading American medical journals giving all the credit to Blalock and Taussig, Vivian Thomas contribution was not thought worthy of a mention. Within a year the operation using a instrument made by Vivian Thomas and his surgical techniques had been used to perform over 200 operations had became universally known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt.
Despite his adulation he was poorly paid, making it necessary for him to work as a bartender to make ends meet. Some of his bartending activities was at Blalock’s house parties where he was required to serve many of the medical students whom he had been teaching surgical skills and techniques all day.
Vivian Thomas retired in 1979; fifteen years after Blalock had died of cancer in 1964 and began writing his autobiography. Vivian Thomas eventually died of pancreatic cancer in 1985 age 75 year. After his death his widow and mother of his two children was interviewed by a journalist working for the ‘Washingtonian’. She was reported to have said that throughout the time of the ‘blue baby’ operations Vivian held on to the idea that he might still be able to qualified as a surgeon. He applied to several universities who he hoped would take his life’s work into consideration. They all refused, insisting that he followed the same required freshman standard of entry. Realising that this meant that he would not have graduated until he was fifty years of age he finally abandoned the idea.
How he was able to continue to work with in partnership with Blalock for 34 years is truly baffling, with echoes of the battered wife syndrome. On the one hand Blalock insisted on Thomas working with him and defended his choice of partner with the Vanderbilt University. Also during the operations at the John Hopkins hospital, he insisted that Vivian was present in the theatre during the first series of operations. Whilst on the other hand he obviously considered him to be his inferior, because he kept him on low wages, refused to acknowledge him academically or interact with him socially as an equal, not to mention hogging all the limelight, glory and accolades which came with their joint success.