Celebrating Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas
Written by Gillian Crowl, Attorney
Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas was born in Louisiana in 1910. He graduated from Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee with honors in 1929. He planned to become a doctor; however, due to the stock market crash and ensuing depression he was forced to end his premedical studies. He secured a job in 1930 as a laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt University, where he worked with Dr. Alfred Blalock. Although working as a surgical assistant for Dr. Blalock, Dr. Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor. However, because Dr. Thomas’ skills as a surgical assistant and research associate were of the highest quality, when Dr. Blalock took a position at Johns Hopkins in 1941, he insisted that Thomas come with him.
While at Johns Hopkins, Drs. Blalock and Thomas, along with pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig, developed the procedure used to correct the cardiac condition known as “blue baby syndrome,” a condition that caused blueness of the skin in babies as a result of low oxygen levels in the blood. Dr. Thomas was tasked with creating a blue baby-like condition in dogs and then correcting it. After two years of laboratory work involving some 200 dogs, Dr. Thomas proved the procedure was not lethal. In 1944, Dr. Blalock performed the first such surgery, and Dr. Thomas stood behind him on a stepstool and coached him through the procedure. When the procedure was published in 1945 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Drs. Blalock and Taussig received sole credit.
Drs. Thomas and Blalock also did groundbreaking research into the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. In 1946, Dr. Thomas developed a surgical technique known as atrial septectomy for improving circulation in patients whose great vessels were transposed.
Despite his lack of formal education, Dr. Thomas served as supervisor of surgical laboratories at Johns Hopkins for 35 years. In 1976, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for his many contributions and was named an instructor in surgery. Dr. Thomas mentored a number of African American lab technicians as well as Johns Hopkins’ first black cardiac resident, Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., whom Dr. Thomas assisted with his groundbreaking work in the use of the Automatic Implantable Defibrillator.
Dr. Thomas’ autobiography, Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock, was first published in 1985.