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Footprints Through Time: Helen Taussig (1898-1986)

Helen TaussigHelen Taussig was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1898, the youngest of four children. Her father was a prominent Harvard economist and her mother was a natural scientist who died of tuberculosis when Taussig was eleven years old. A childhood bout of whopping cough left Taussig with a significant loss of hearing.

Taussig completed her B.A. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1921. In pursuing a medical career, Taussig encountered daunting obstacles and discrimination. She enrolled in Harvard's School of Public Health, but women could not get a degree there. Taussig needed special permission to take courses at Harvard's medical school, which did not admit women until 1945. Her anatomy professor at Boston University suggested that she focus on the heart, and apply to medical school at Johns Hopkins.

Taussig received her M.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1927. She worked in the Hopkins pediatric cardiac clinic with Dr. Edwards Park, and in 1930 Taussig became physician-in-charge of the Hopkins children's pediatric clinic. In 1946 she became an associate professor of pediatrics.

Partly due to her hearing difficulty, which prevented her from using a stethoscope, Taussig mastered new technologies for diagnosis. She made expert use of x-rays, electrocardiographs, and innovative physical examination methods.

In 1942, Taussig concluded that the bluish appearance of cyanotic children resulted from a lack of oxygen in the blood. In "blue babies," she found that the lack of oxygen resulted from a blockage in the blood vessels to the lungs or a leak in the septum that divides the two halves of the heart. Taussig persuaded Dr. Alfred Blalock, a vascular surgeon, to try and relieve the obstruction. With Vivien Thomas, Blalock proved Taussig's hypothesis, then worked with her to develop a procedure, known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt, to alleviate the obstruction. The procedure, introduced in 1944, saved thousands of lives.

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