“Something The Lord Made”


A Story of the Resilience of the Human Spirit

Vivien and wife, Clara

Vivien always wanted to be a doctor. People always wondered why he answered a woman’s name. His mother thought she would have a girl and reserved the name, but still kept it when he was born. As a black man in segregated America, and the grandson of a slave, he knew society had little patience with people like him. Medical education was rather costly and racial restraints numbered by the dozen.

In 1929, Vivien took a carpentry job at Vanderbilt. He knew he was quite gifted with his hands. At about the same time, he enrolled at Tennessee as a premed student. Unfortunately, he managed to lose his job at Vanderbilt University. It was a small setback. Sadly, In October 1929, disaster struck. The American stockmarket crashed, leaving poverty, hunger and misery in its wake. Savings were wiped away during the Great Depression that followed. His dreams of becoming a doctor were put on hold.

A friend was instrumental to fixing him up with Dr. Alfred Blalock, a respected cardiologist at his old workplace at Vanderbilt. His meeting Dr. Alfred in 1930 proved to be a turning point in his life. The man was a force of nature. Where the medical community frowned on operating on the human heart, Alfred embraced the immense difficulties. He seemed not to harbour the racial biases which were rife in the white community.

Initially, Dr. Alfred saw only a carpenter in his young friend. Then one day he walked in on him reading medical books. Thus he learned that the young man wanted to become a doctor. Soon, they were carrying out experiments together in the surgeon’s laboratory. Vivien needed no tutoring. His surgical skills were topnotch. It didn’t take long for both men to begin operating on dogs together, despite Vivien’s lack of medical education. This was extraordinary, because, except for Vivien, all the black men in the place worked as janitors.

Dr. Alfred Blalock (Cardiac Surgeon) and Vivien (Lab Assistant)

When Dr. Alfred was appointed Chief of Surgery at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, in 1941, he persuaded the institution to allow him to he bring his maverick assistant with him. He had since acknowledged the young man’s expertise and skill. However, they were an unlikely pair. Heads turned and tongues wagged when Vivien made his rounds in the medical research building, wearing an immaculate white lab coat. The racism was terrible. Despite having the duties of a postdoctoral researcher and training medical surgeons with Dr Alfred, he was paid just a little better than cleaners and it infuriated him. He continued nursing hopes of going to medical school.

Two years later, Dr. Alfred was approached by a children’s doctor, Helen. Dr. Helen had been researching solutions to a complex heart condition in newborn babies and children. She was desperate for a cure for blue babies. The cardiac surgeon was eager to collaborate and naturally, he shared his ideas with his assistant, Vivien.

Soon, they devised a technique for recreating the heart condition in dogs, as well as the surgical treatment itself. Vivien spent many hours in the lab, experimenting on hundreds of canines. Before long, he had perfected his surgical methods and was able to convince Dr. Alfred that his treatment was safe for humans. In the horizon, a real cure for blue baby syndrome seemed possible. Indeed, a portrait of one of the dogs and the first long term survivor of surgery for tetralogy of favor, yet hangs on the walls of Johns Hopkins to this day.

Their first cardiac patient was Eileen, an 18 month old baby. The illness made her lips, fingers and skin turn blue. She would begin to breathe heavily after taking a few steps. Her parents took the risk of consenting to a surgery never before tried on human beings.

Whereas Vivien had performed the cardiac surgery many times on live dog specimens, he had become adept at the procedure. Dr. Alfred Blalock had limited experience as he had performed the surgery a few times as Vivien’s assistant. Yet he had to operate as Vivien had no medical license. “You are going in with me”, he had instructed his assistant just before the operation to save the little girl. At Eileen’s surgery, Vivien stood on a step – stool behind Dr. Alfred, whispering instructions and guiding the surgeon and his team of doctors. Due to the non-existence of cardiac surgery equipment, Vivien was instrumental to adapting the tools they employed in dog experiments, for use on humans. The operation was a partial success though it prolonged the girl’s life by a few months.

Next, the team operated on an 11 year old girl, then a 6 year old boy, with complete success. The astonishing results of the groundbreaking surgery were published in the May 1945 issue of the journal of the American Medical Association. Regrettably, no mention was made of Vivien’s pioneering role and contributions. He did not appear alongside the other members of the surgical team in group photos published in the media.

Tens of surgeries were performed subsequently by the John’s Hopkins team, yet Vivien remained invisible and unrecognised. His pay was ridiculously meagre. Sometimes he would work as a bartender in Dr. Alfred’s house in the evenings. This created a scenario where he ended up serving wine to surgeons he had trained earlier in the day.

Dr. Alfred did get him a pay raise, but did not officially recognise Vivien’s accomplishments. By 1968, surgeons Vivien had trained had become heads of surgery departments all over America. Vivien was the unsung hero of cardiac surgery. It was not until the 1970s that Vivien was awarded an honourary doctorate of laws by Johns Hopkins for his achievements. Eventually, he was officially made a surgery instructor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. His students could finally call him “doctor”!

Portrait by Bob Gee

Dr. Vivien T. Thomas

Dr. Vivien’s astounding story demonstrates that persistence and ability can conquer barriers of racial discrimination and economic oppression. The man is now a household name in the hallowed history of modern medicine. Every year, millions of people receive life saving heart surgery all over the world. Millions have been inspired by one man’s extraordinary example. A critically acclaimed movie of the same name, starring Alan Rickman and Mos Def, was released by HBO in 2004, to dramatise this incredible story.


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