American Experience
Early Years: Pivotal Decisions
Pivotal Decisions: Should Thomas Attend Blalock's 60th Birthday Party?

Baltimore, 1961
At the pinnacle of his professional career, Dr. Alfred Blalock's colleagues and students honor his 60th birthday with a gala at Baltimore's Southern Hotel. Absent on the list of invited guests is his laboratory technician of more than thirty years, Vivien Thomas. In 1960, the Southern Hotel is still segregated.

By 1960, Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas had worked together for three decades. During that time, they realized two major accomplishments -- uncovering the cause and treatment for shock, and creating a heart surgery to relieve the Blue Baby syndrome. The former saved countless soldiers' lives during World War II and revolutionized the field of surgery. The latter extended the lives of thousands of children and changed the way doctors think about the heart. With the Blue Baby operation, both men played a significant role in the development of cardiac surgery and went on to train many of America's first generation of cardiac surgeons.

On the occasion of Blalock's 60th birthday, plans were made to honor the great surgeon at a formal dinner to be held at Baltimore's Southern Hotel. The hotel was segregated, which meant that Blalock's partner, Vivien Thomas, could not attend as an invited guest. The evening was Blalock's own, and despite signs of advancing illness, it was clearly an event in which he took great delight and warmly appreciated. It was attended by many of the greatest surgeons in the world. But as the evening unfolded, how did Blalock feel knowing that his long-time technician was not invited?

Select one of these three choices:

Choice 1
Thomas should show up at the birthday gala uninvited and take a seat.

His long tenure with Blalock gives him as much right as anyone to be present.

Choice 2
Thomas should attend the birthday gala secretly and not speak about it afterwards.

Even though Thomas was not formally invited, he would like to see his mentor honored.

Choice 3
Thomas should stay away from the birthday party.

Aware that not receiving an invitation was no oversight, Thomas refuses to go where he is not invited.