Vivien Thomas: Surgical Pioneer

Vivien Thomas

Authored on

March 13, 2023
Kara Wexler

One of the most beloved parts of The Franklin Institute is The Giant Heart. While many visitors learn a lot about the heart from this exhibit, few probably know about Vivien Thomas, the Black scientist who developed many techniques for heart surgery, as well as taught future cardiac surgeons.

His Original Plan
Vivien Thomas was born on August 29, 1910 in New Iberia, Louisiana. As a young man, he worked as a hospital orderly to save money for college, where he planned on enrolling pre-med. When the stock market crashed in 1929, he lost all of his savings, derailing his dream.

Working with Alfred Blalock
In 1930, Thomas began working as a lab assistant for Alfred Blalock, a white doctor, at Vanderbilt University. Blalock quickly realized Thomas’ brilliance and began to rely on him more and more in the lab. When he was offered a position at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Blalock insisted on taking Thomas with him. However, the hospital refused to hire Thomas because of his race, so Blalock declined the position. The pair eventually moved to Johns Hopkins University in 1941.

Blue Babies
While at Johns Hopkins, they were approached by Dr. Helen Taussig, who was treating “blue babies” – infants born with a heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot. Using a failed hypertension experiment they did at Vanderbilt as a basis, Blalock and Thomas worked together to develop a procedure to treat the defect. Thomas recreated the defect in dog hearts and then tested their procedure, which was developed in less than two years. The surgery was first performed on a human patient in 1944, with Thomas on a stool behind Blalock in the operating room, coaching him every step of the way. Because surgical needles were too large for an infant, Blalock used special needles that Thomas had modified. The procedure worked and is still used today.

His Legacy
Vivien Thomas continued his groundbreaking work for decades. In 1946, he developed atrial septectomy, another heart procedure. He again tested it in dogs before Dr. Blalock used it in the operating room. He was a pioneer in other ways as well. When Johns Hopkins was integrated in 1963, Thomas became a mentor to Black students. He received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the university in 1976, and was a member of the medical school faculty from 1976 until 1985, training the next generation of surgeons. Today, one of the Colleges at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is named in his honor.


About the author

Kara Wexler ,
Digital Marketing Coordinator

Kara is our Digital Marketing Coordinator by day, and a playwright by night. She loves both science and history, and is curious about pretty much everything.