Vivien Theodore Thomas (August 29, 1910 – November 26, 1985) was an African-American surgical technician and operative surgeon who helped develop the procedures used to treat blue baby syndrome in the 1940s. He was an assistant to Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and later at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Without any education past high school, Thomas rose above poverty and racism to become a cardiac surgery pioneer and a teacher to many of the country's most prominent surgeons.
From the very beginning Thomas showed an extraordinary aptitude for surgery and precise experimentation, and Blalock granted him wider and wider latitude in the execution of the protocols. Tutored in anatomy and physiology by Blalock and his young research fellow, Dr. Joseph Beard, Thomas rapidly mastered complex surgical techniques and research methodology. He and Blalock developed great respect for one another, forging such a close working relationship that they came to operate almost as a single mind. Outside the lab environment, however, they maintained the social distance dictated by the mores of the times. In an era when institutional racism was the norm, Thomas was classified, and paid, as a janitor, despite the fact that by the mid 1930s he was doing the work of a postdoctoral researcher in Blalock's lab.
Together he and Blalock did groundbreaking research into the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. This work later evolved into research on Crush syndrome and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of World War II. In hundreds of flawlessly executed experiments, the two disproved traditional theories which held that shock was caused by toxins in the blood. Blalock, a highly original scientific thinker and something of an iconoclast, had theorized that shock resulted from fluid loss outside the vascular bed and that the condition could be effectively treated by fluid replacement. Assisted by Thomas, he was able to provide incontrovertible proof of this theory, and in so doing, he gained wide recognition in the medical community by the mid 1930s. At this same time, Blalock and Thomas began experimental work in vascular and cardiac surgery, defying medical taboos against operating upon the heart. It was this work that laid the foundation for the revolutionary lifesaving surgery they were to perform at Johns Hopkins a decade later.
Medical Archives: Vivien Thomes
Something the Lord Made (2004) - DVD
Starring: Alan Rickman, Mos Def Director: Joseph Sargent
Heart Man: Vivien Thomas, African-American Heart Surgery Pioneer by Edwin Brit Wyckoff
Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock: An Autobiography by Vivien T. Thomas
American Experience - Partners Of The Heart (2003) -VHS
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Dr. Levi Watkins Director: Andrea Kalin, Bill Duke