Black History Month: Vivien Thomas

This year, we’re continuing our recognition of Black History Month, highlighting prominent Black figures in medicine. This week, we’re highlighting Vivien Thomas, a surgical technician and laboratory supervisor.

One of the most fascinating things about Thomas was that he had no formal or professional education after high school. After graduating from Nashville’s Pearl High School in 1929, he worked as a carpenter at Fisk University. He hoped to go to college, but the Great Depression began as he graduated from high school and Thomas wasn’t able to continue his education. In February 1930, he began working as a surgical research assistant at Vanderbilt University with Dr. Alfred Blalock. On just his second day, he was trusted to deliver anesthesia and within weeks he was starting surgeries on his own. Although he wasn’t classified as such, the work he was doing was the equivalent of a postdoctoral researcher.

Working together, Blalock and Thomas researched the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock, eventually saving the lives of thousands of soldiers during World War II. Together, they debunked the common theory that shock was caused by blood toxins. Blalock was able to prove that shock was a result of fluid loss, with Thomas’ help. They also researched heart surgery and eventually performed a revolutionary heart surgery at Johns Hopkins.

In 1940, Blalock was offered the job of Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins and requested that Thomas joined as his lab assistant. However Thomas and his family weren’t prepared for the level of racism in Baltimore. Housing in Baltimore was segregated and the only Black employees at Johns Hopkins were janitors. Thomas even changed out of his white lab coat before leaving the lab to stop unwanted attention as he walked the halls of Johns Hopkins.

Together at Johns Hopkins, Blalock and Thomas were asked to help pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig come up with a treatment for a fatal heart defect known as blue baby syndrome. When a baby is born with this defect, the blood bypasses the lungs, giving the baby oxygen deprivation. Blalock and Thomas realized that they already had a solution. Thomas created the situation on an animal and then successfully corrected the problem. One of the dogs used in this experiment, Anna, is the only animal to have her portrait hanging in the halls of Johns Hopkins. Once Blalock saw that Thomas successfully treated the condition in animals, he was able to perform the procedure on human infants. During the first procedure in 1944, Thomas stood over Blalock, walking him through the procedure. The infant lived several months more than expected, but the next two procedures were successful. However, Thomas did not receive credit for inventing the procedure.

Thomas never returned to college, even though he wanted to. He realized that saving for school, while still supporting his family made this dream impossible. Throughout much of his career, he was paid at a janitor’s wage, even though he was creating life-saving medical procedures. He eventually became the director of Surgical Research Laboratories and in 1968, a group of surgeons trained by Thomas commissioned a portrait and arranged to have it hung next to Blalock in one of the campus buildings. Years later, Thomas received an honorary doctorate. He was never allowed to operate on a living patient, though staff and students did call him doctor.

In 1987 his nephew graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. During his education, Thomas’ nephew was trained by many of the doctors who trained under Thomas. Years later, in 2005, Johns Hopkins named one of its colleges after Thomas.

Thomas died in 1985 of pancreatic cancer.