The exceptional story of that African American laboratory technician is also a lesson on racism and perseverance.

Vivien Thomas was born in Louisiana to a father’s carpenter and received a good education. However, his dream of entering medical school was dashed by the great depression in the United States that devoured his savings. He became a carpenter in one dive. At the age of 20, he was hired as a technician in the laboratory of surgeon Alfred Blalock (1910-1964) at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee

Blalock was impressed by Vivien Thomas’ intelligence and taught him the human anatomy in this area. Thomas was paid as a cleaner, but by the mid-1930s he was already doing the equivalent of post-doctoral research. He conducted surgical experiments with less advanced technical equipment than today.

Vivien Thomas
Vivien Thomas

Thomas and Dr. Blalock have been able to prove that the crush syndrome, in which many patients died, was not caused by bleeding, as is generally assumed, but by the emission of muscle toxins. After experiencing vascular repair of this disease in unsuccessful animals, Blalock was able to confirm this hypothesis and it was recognized worldwide. This discovery saved thousands of lives during the war from 1939 to 1945. At the same time, Blalock and his assistant began experimenting extensively with open-heart surgery, which would lead to a revolution in the medical field

Vivien Thomas at his laboratery in Vanderbilt Source : Vandervilt University
Vivien Thomas at his laboratory in Vanderbilt
Source: Vandervilt University

Thanks to his new reputation, Dr. Blalock took a position as a senior surgeon at John Hopkins, the best medical school in the United States, where he asked Thomas to come. When Vivien Thomas arrived in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters at the university, he was faced with an atmosphere of racism and segregation that was worse than that in the south. He suffered from finding accommodation.

Alfred Blalock
Alfred Blalock

In 1943, Dr. Blalock by Dr. Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist, approached who was looking for solutions to solve a complex heart problem called Fallot tetralogy that turns the child blue due to lack of oxygen in the blood, hence the term “blue baby”. She mentioned the possibility of surgery by reconnecting the blood vessels. Blalock commissioned Vivien Thomas to research this topic

Thomas performed 200 operations on dogs that he had previously stained blue and that could connect the blood vessels that treated the disease. He succeeded in proving that surgery to correct the problem did not result in death, and persuaded Blalock, who in this case was only performing an experimental operation, to operate on people.

Thomas set the surgical instruments so that they could be used on humans, and on November 29, 1944, the then 34-year-old Vivien Thomas assisted the then 45-year-old Dr. Blalock during an operation on an 18 year old adolescent. At Blalock’s request, Thomas stood behind his shoulder and directed his actions during the operation. After 3 operations, the method was mastered and success was achieved. The whole world welcomed this innovation called “Blalock-Taussig-Anastomose”. Thomas was not mentioned and his contribution was ignored by Blalock and the university.

Surgical tool invented by Vivien Source : John Hopkins University
Surgical tool invented by Vivien
Source: John Hopkins University

Vivien Thomas created other surgical methods and invented instruments for heart surgery. Thomas has taught several surgeons around the world. Vivien underpaid a second job as a waiter and often served his own students at receptions hosted by Dr. Blalock were organized. He was the highest-paid technician at the university and was named an honorary doctor in 1976 before being named chief surgeon. He helped Levi Watkins develop the implantable defibrillator.

17 vivien thomas jeune 3

The portrait of Dr. Thomas from there was next to that of Dr. Blalock hung in the room that bears his name. Schools and scholarships for minorities now bear his name. Morgan State University, a university designed to welcome and promote black work experience, refused to take Vivien Thomas’ experience into account and asked him to follow the normal process to complete the medical course in the 1940s. ‘Realizing that he would not finish his studies before the age of 50, he gave up his dream. Vivien Thomas died of pancreatic cancer in 1985.

Portrait of Vivien Thomas displayed at John Hopkins
Portrait of Vivien Thomas displayed at John Hopkins

The 2004 film “Something the Lord did” is based on Thomas’ true story with Mos Def. May the story of this great kamit (black) serve as a lesson, especially for those who have not yet opened their eyes to kamitophobia.

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