Winners see opportunity where losers see imperfection.
In 1947, Morgan State University saw imperfection in Vivien Thomas. Thomas contacted the school wanting to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. He had life experience in the field of medicine that he hoped would qualify for academic credit and shorten his time attending the university. Morgan State saw only imperfection because Vivien Thomas was black. Morgan State insisted that the black man would have to take all freshman classes before graduating. Vivien Thomas decided he would be too old when he graduated and gave up his dream of becoming a doctor.
What was Vivien Thomas’ life experience? He developed techniques and instruments for heart surgery, specifically surgery to save the lives of babies with heart defects. Morgan lost bragging rights by excluding a medical pioneer from its list of alumna.
In 1930, white surgeon Alfred Blalock saw opportunity when a black teenage male carpenter applied for a job as a surgical research technician. Because Alfred Blalock hired Vivien Thomas, Alfred Blalock is now revered as a pioneer of heart surgery with Vivien Thomas. Vivien Thomas taught heart surgery techniques to all of the first white surgeons. They came from around the world to Johns Hopkins Uniersity in Baltimore to learn heart surgery. Johns Hopkins University won bragging rights for having a medical pioneering team on its staff.
Note: According to Vivien Thomas’ autobiography, he never worked as a janitor at Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt paid him janitor’s wages because he was black, but he worked only as a surgical research technician. Dr. Blalock eventually got him better wages.
In 1937, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit saw imperfection in Vivien Thomas as a colleague of Alfred Blalock. Henry Ford offered Alfred Blalock the position of surgeon-in-chief. Blalock would have been able to run his own department, train his own men, and do more research. When Blalock insisted on bringing Vivien Thomas with, Henry Ford Hospital said they never hired blacks. Henry Ford Hospital lost. Johns Hopkins University hired Vivien Thomas with Alfred Blalock and won.
In 1943, pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig saw opportunity in the Alfred Blalock/Vivien Thomas team. She came to them with the idea of creating an operation to help “Blue Babies”. Blue Babies are born with defective hearts. Taussig saw opportunity in the Blalock/Thomas team for developing a heart surgery to correct the defect and save babies’ lives. Helen Taussig won. She received the Albert Lasker Award for outstanding contributions to medicine. Johns Hopkins was a double winner for seeing opportunity in mostly deaf female doctor Helen Taussig.
Obviously, Morgan State University and Henry Ford Hospital are no longer the losers they were in 1947 and 1937. Most institutions were losers back then. Morgan State’s list of famous alumni includes many people of color. Henry Ford’s roster of surgeons includes many people of color. They have both joined Johns Hopkins University as winners.
Seeing opportunity instead of imperfection, Johns Hopkins University created more opportunity by putting Alfred Blalock, Vivien Thomas, and Helen Taussig together in one place. Alfred Blalock, Vivien Thomas, and Helen Taussig were all determined problem solvers. Together they solved one of the biggest problems in history — how to safely operate on human hearts to save human lives.
Determined problem solvers are smart employees, according to Danny Shader, CEO of Good Technology:
“Profitable innovation comes not from inventing a product, he (Danny Shader) maintains, but from having a team of smart employees who figure out how to do a better job every time they interact with customers. ‘That sort of innovation will do a lot more for your company than a piece of parchment (patent),’ he says.”
What do you see? What do your employees see? Are you creating more opportunity by putting a variety of determined problem solvers together in one place? Are you giving yourself opportunities to win big?
Partners of the Heart: Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock
“Relax. Let your guard down: Why patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property protections are bad—that’s right, bad—for business”
David H. Freedman
Paula M. Kramer
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