Partners of the Heart
At the height of segregation in the United States, an unlikely alliance between a black medical genius and a white surgeon led to some of the 20th century's pioneering medical breakthroughs.
In 1944, two men at Johns Hopkins University Hospital pioneered a groundbreaking procedure that would save thousands of so-called blue babies' lives. One of them, Alfred Blalock, was a prominent white surgeon. The other, Vivien Thomas, was an African American with a high school education. Partners of the Heart tells the inspiring, little-known story of their collaboration. Blalock recognized Thomas' talents when the younger man came inquiring after a hospital janitor's job. But though Blalock came to treat Thomas with tremendous respect in the lab, the two men were rarely treated as equals in the outside world. Over time, Thomas would go on to train two generations of the country's premier heart surgeons. In 1976, more than three decades after the first blue baby's life had been saved, Johns Hopkins finally formally recognized Thomas' extraordinary achievements, awarding him an honorary doctorate.
Test Tube Babies
The pioneering researchers in the effort to conceive babies through in vitro fertilization faced daunting obstacles and much controversy before the world's first test tube baby was born on July 25, 1978.
She was described in the press as the "Baby of the Century." When Louise Brown, the world's first successful test tube baby, was born in Great Britain on July 25, 1978, the event was heralded as the beginning of a technological revolution in human reproduction. It was also the culmination of a decade-long effort involving scientists on both sides of the Atlantic to conceive babies through in vitro fertilization, or IVF. This AMERICAN EXPERIENCE production interweaves the story of two doctors, the renowned New York gynecologist Landrum Shettles and the British physiologist Robert Edwards. Haunted by the fear that their laboratory interventions in the natural fertilization process would create malformations in the embryo, these pioneering researchers faced a slew of daunting obstacles. Colleagues were reluctant to collaborate on work they deemed too controversial and government agencies refused to fund their research, believing testing IVF on humans was premature. As they forged ahead, Shettles and Edwards met with fierce cultural opposition. The Catholic Church excoriated them for taking ńthe LordÍs work into their own hands,î and their work became the locus of debate over the limits of science and a precursor of the current debate over cloning and stem cell research.
The Boy in the Bubble
When David Vetter died at the age of 12, he was already world famous: the boy in the plastic bubble. Mythologized as the plucky, handsome child who defied the odds, his life story is in fact even more dramatic.
On February 22, 1984, Carol Ann Vetter touched her 12-year-old son's hand for the first time. David Vetter had spent his entire life inside a sterile isolator, with a protective layer of plastic shielding him from the world around him. Afflicted with a rare hereditary disease, severe combined immunodeficiency, David was defenseless against any germs. Now, his doctors were gambling on an experimental procedure to free him from his isolation -- but David would live only two weeks in the outside world before succumbing to infection.In his own time, many regarded David's twelve-year odyssey inside his bubble as a triumph of technology. To others, it was a bizarre experiment that exemplified medical hubris. Since his death, David's name has receded; millions have come to know him simply as "the boy in the bubble," popularized by Paul Simon's hit song, a feature film, and television's "Seinfeld."
The Great Fever
In 1900 Major Walter Reed and his medical team prove that yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes. The eradication of the disease that had terrorized the U.S. for centuries began with an aggressive public health campaign to rid the city of New Orleans of m
In June 1900, Major Walter Reed, Chief Surgeon of the U.S. Army, led a medical team to Cuba on a mission to investigate yellow fever. For more than two hundred years the disease had terrorized the United States, killing an estimated 100,000 people in the nineteenth century alone. Shortly after Reed and his team arrived in Havana they began testing the radical theories of Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor who believed that mosquitoes spread yellow fever. This AMERICAN EXPERIENCE production documents the heroic efforts of Reed's medical team, some of whom put their own lives on the line to verify Finlay's theory. Eventually, their discovery enabled the United States to successfully eradicate the disease among workers constructing the Panama Canal, making possible the completion of one of the most strategic waterways in the world. When yellow fever struck New Orleans in 1905, an aggressive mosquito eradication campaign successfully ended the epidemic. It was the last yellow fever outbreak in the United States, and the first major public health triumph of the 20th century.
Little more than a decade after his rise to fame, Walter Freeman was decried as a monster, and his procedure was labeled one of the most barbaric mistakes of modern medicine.
In the early decades of the 20th century, before the development of psychiatric medications, there were few effective treatments for mental illness. For most patients, the last stop in their anguished journey was an overcrowded state asylum. An ambitious young neurologist named Walter Freeman advocated a more radical approach -- brain surgery to reduce the severity of psychotic symptoms.Despite mixed results, by the early 1940s, some fifty state asylums were performing lobotomies on their patients. The procedure was hailed as a miracle cure, Freeman himself a visionary who brought hope to the most desolate human beings.Yet only a decade later, the story would come full-circle again. Freeman would be decried as a moral monster, the lobotomy as one of the most barbaric mistakes ever perpetrated by mainstream medicine.