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Footprints Through Time: Vivien Thomas (1910-1985)

Vivien ThomasVivien T. Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1910, the son of a carpenter. His family moved to Nashville, where Vivien graduated with honors from Pearl High School. Later in 1929 he was preparing for college and medical school when his savings for tuition disappeared following the October stock market crash. With no means for education, he took a job as a laboratory technician at Vanderbilt University's medical school, working for Dr. Alfred Blalock.

Thomas still hoped to save tuition money to earn his own medical degree, but the Great Depression worsened and the research with Blalock grew. Soon Thomas was working sixteen hours a day in the laboratory, performing operations on animals that would advance Blalock's studies of high blood pressure and traumatic shock. For his work, Thomas invented a heavy spring device that could apply varying levels of pressure. Blalock and Thomas' work at Vanderbilt created a new understanding of shock, showing that shock was linked to a loss of fluid and blood volume.

When Blalock became chief surgeon at Johns Hopkins University's medical school in 1941, he insisted that Vivien Thomas be hired to join his team there. At Johns Hopkins, Thomas and Blalock pioneered the field of heart surgery with a procedure to alleviate a congenital heart defect, the Tetralogy of Fallot ("blue baby syndrome"). Sufferers faced brutally short life expectancies. Working with cardiologist Helen Taussig, Blalock and Thomas developed an operation that would deliver more oxygen to the blood and relieve the constriction caused by the heart defect. Thomas tested the procedure -- a refinement of one that they had created in laboratory dogs -- on animals to make sure it would work. In 1944, with Thomas advising Blalock, the first "blue baby" operation was successfully performed on 15-month-old Eileen Saxon.

Thomas was a key partner in hundreds of "blue baby" operations, performing pre- and post-operation procedures on patients as well as advising in the operating room. At the same time, he continued to manage Blalock's ongoing laboratory research.

As head of the Hopkins surgical research laboratory, Thomas also taught a generation of surgeons and lab technicians. The residents and research fellows who worked with Thomas testified to his unique abilities and his dedication.

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