Footprints Through Time
The medical discoveries of Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas had an enormous impact on the field of heart surgery. Their achievements went far beyond the stunning success of the blue baby operation, which saved the lives of countless children.
In the years following the perfection of that surgery, Blalock and Thomas trained a generation of surgeons, many of whom are still operating today. Both men were known as gifted, patient teachers, and their life-saving legacy remains the crowning achievement of their 34-year partnership.
Read profiles of Blalock, Thomas, Helen Taussig, and the medical professionals who followed in their footsteps.
Mr. Thomas pioneered experimental techniques in cardiac surgery with Alfred Blalock, which saved the lives of countless heart patients. A laboratory technician, Thomas invented surgical instruments that are still used today. Despite his talents and determination, Thomas' dream to go to medical school was stopped short by the Depression, when his bank failed, and his savings disappeared.
Dr. Blalock began his career with groundbreaking research on the physiology of shock. Later with the help of Vivien Thomas and Helen Taussig, he conducted one of the world's first heart surgeries, which saved a "blue baby." Yet as a young man, at 26, he failed to get the residency in surgery he wanted and considered himself a failure.
Dr. Taussig was the first cardiac pediatrician in the United States. She was puzzled by a terminal illness called "blue baby syndrome" and went to Alfred Blalock to seek a surgical solution. The surgery became known as the Blalock-Taussig procedure. Even with that trailblazing achievement, she did not gain the title of full professor until 1949, when she became the first woman in the history of Johns Hopkins medical school to attain that rank.
J. Alex Haller, Jr.
Dr. Haller established the first regional trauma center for children in the county at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As a pediatric surgeon, he started training under the tutorship of Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas in the 1950s. He returned to Johns Hopkins in the 1960s as its chief pediatric surgeon and led that unit for over thirty years.
Mr. Lee was first inspired to pursue medicine by his grandmother's work as a midwife. He was working as an elevator man at Johns Hopkins when, one day, Vivien Thomas boarded the elevator. By the time he stepped off, Lee's path in life had taken a different turn.
Denton A. Cooley
Inspired by his time as an intern for Alfred Blalock and the first blue baby operation in the 1940s, Dr. Cooley became a leading heart surgeon, conducting one of the first successful heart transplants in 1968. In 1969 he transplanted the first complete artificial heart, which sustained the patient until a permanent donor heart was available. The operation stirred controversy.
Dr. Spencer was the first woman to become a surgical intern at Johns Hopkins University, the first woman to join the surgical staff at Louisiana State University, and one of the first female pediatric surgeons in America.
Levi Watkins, Jr.
Dr. Watkins is one of America's top cardiologists. He was the first surgeon to implant an internal defibrillator, which automatically detects irregular heart rhythms and corrects them. Dr. Watkins was the first African American to serve as chief resident in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Eaton, inspired by his uncle, Vivien Thomas, became a physician and orthopedic surgeon in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is on the medical staff of a major league baseball team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.