I consider Vivien Thomas (1910-1985) a late-in-career inspiration. I remember feeling viscerally incensed in 2003 when, as a senior academic pediatrician with responsibility for training the next generation of learners--and who, over a twenty-year period, had participated in the care of dozens, if not several hundred, babies with congenital heart disease--I realized I had until then been totally unaware of the true story behind development of the corrective procedure for the blue baby syndrome.
I first learned of Vivien Thomas from the PBS documentary, "Partners of the Heart," which details the partnership between Dr. Alfred Blalock, considered the father of modern cardiac surgery, and Thomas, a talented carpenter from Nashville, Tennessee. Blalock hired Thomas as a laboratory assistant in 1930 while at Vanderbilt University and, over the ensuing decade, the two conducted a series of groundbreaking experiments focused primarily on the treatment of hemorrhagic shock, developing a number of novel animal models. As Blalock’s academic obligations began to limit his physical presence in the lab, Thomas assumed greater responsibility for refinement of the experiments. In 1941, Blalock was recruited back to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, and Thomas accompanied him re-establishing their surgical lab in Baltimore.
At Hopkins, the collaboration of Blalock and Thomas with pediatric cardiologist, Helen Taussig, resulted in development of a groundbreaking surgical procedure to correct the Tetralogy of Fallot. Thomas was responsible for perfecting the anastomotic modeling, teaching the technique to Blalock, even creating the surgical instruments to perform the delicate operation.
In November 1944, the first surgery on a baby to correct the Tetralogy of Fallot was successfully performed by Blalock, with Thomas guiding at his side, changing the landscape of medicine forever. Thomas later trained a generation of surgical residents in his lab at Hopkins, including Drs. Denton Cooley and William Longmire, who went on to define cardiovascular surgery in this country as we know it today.
“Broad exposure at NCE to the particular hidden history around development of what should clearly be called the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt--and a condition that is so fundamentally pediatric--reminds me of just how important it is to be fully transparent about structural inequities, their root causes, and the beliefs that perpetuate them.”
Despite the private respect Blalock may have had for his surgical technician, there was no acknowledgement of Thomas’ contributions, not even a footnote. He was not publically recognized until 1976, when Johns Hopkins University awarded him an honorary doctorate, fully twelve years after Blalock’s death.
Fast forward to the recently completed AAP National Conference and Exhibition (NCE). As part of a plenary adaptation of her earlier workshop, Dr. Christopher reprised her personal story. Today, she refers to her daughter as an “angel who came into my life and started me on my trajectory to work toward racial healing.”
Broad exposure at NCE to the particular hidden history around development of what should clearly be called the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt--and a condition that is so fundamentally pediatric--reminds me of just how important it is to be fully transparent about structural inequities, their root causes, and the beliefs that perpetuate them.
As the AAP focuses on a heightened equity agenda, we all need to be authentically honest about recognizing discrimination challenges in our own histories, in our own communities, and in our own perspectives no matter where we personally believe we may, or may not, be on the bias spectrum.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Joseph L. Wright, MD, MPH, FAAP, is an at-large member-elect of the AAP Board of Directors and immediate past Chair of the AAP’s Task Force on Addressing Bias and Discrimination. He is also Chair of the AAP Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine. He is President and Chief Executive Officer (interim) of Capital Region Health within the University of Maryland Medical System and has been recognized throughout his career for his advocacy and community engagement work.