An Unlikely Partnership

Vivien Theodore Thomas first met Dr. Alfred Blalock, to interview for research assistant position in Blalock’s animal laboratory. He got the job and was performing complex surgeries on laboratory dogs within a month. What he thought was a temporary position, turned into decades long career and partnership. Together, Dr. Thomas and Dr. Blalock went on to deconstruct the pathophysiology of shock, surgically correct Tetralogy of Fallot in so called ‘Blue Babies’ and invent modern cardiac surgery.

At this point dear reader, you might be wondering, what is so unlikely about this partnership? Is it not common for brilliant doctors to collaborate with each other in the interest of advancing medical science? Not so for Vivien and Alfred, for the year was 1930. Outside the walls of their laboratory the world seethed with prejudice. One was a high school graduate who aspired to medical school, while the other received his MD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. One apprenticed as a carpenter to make ends meet, while the other became chief resident in surgery. One watched his dream of becoming a doctor slip away with the onset of the Great Depression, while the other joined the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. One was black, while the other was white. History agreed they should’ve never met, but history was wrong.

Together, Vivien and Alfred did pioneering work that led to better understanding and treatment of hemorrhagic shock. Vivien was paid a janitor’s wage while fulfilling the role of a senior research fellow, for there were no other black men doing what he did. Alfred intervened and Vivien’s pay went up, but he never found out if they reclassified him as a researcher. In a few years, Dr. Blalock received a lucrative offer from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. However, that hospital had a policy against hiring black men. Vivien could not go with him, so Alfred refused.

Eventually, they moved their laboratory to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where Dr. Blalock was appointed surgeon-in-chief and Vivien became the first black man there to wear the white lab coat. In that deeply segregated institution, they were confronted by the challenge of cyanotic babies with Tetralogy of Fallot, a birth defect in their heart. Vivien took up the task of recreating this defect in canine hearts and he successfully devised a surgical procedure to treat the defect. When Alfred first performed this procedure on Eileen Saxon, an infant who weighed nine pounds, Vivien stood behind him and coached him through the surgery. The surgery was a success and they made history. However, the warm light of recognition, when it came, fell only on Dr. Blalock. This did not deter Vivien, who quietly and efficiently went about supervising his laboratory research, while also training the next generation of surgeons in heart surgery. Even though he had the admiration and respect of his colleagues and trainees, he was not officially recognized for his tremendous contributions until many years later. Johns Hopkins University finally presented him with an Honorary Doctorate in 1976 and he served as a faculty member till 1985.

When I first walked into the Blalock building in Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, I was struck by the portraits of two men, one black and one white, they were Dr. Alfred Blalock and Dr. Vivien Thomas, still seemingly engaged in unending dialogue.