Originally published January 30, 2013.
Revised and republished December 5, 2015 after a web host transfer.
He was 19 years old. He was black. He was a carpenter.
But Vivien Thomas was the right person to develop the techniques for heart surgery.
In 1930 white surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock ignored all the wrongs and saw something right about the teenage black male carpenter. Dr. Blalock hired Vivien Thomas as a surgical research technician at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Vanderbilt University paid Thomas as if he were a janitor, because all blacks at Vanderbilt received janitor’s pay no matter what their real jobs were.
But Vivien Thomas was the right person to invent instruments for heart surgery.
When Dr. Blalock considered a position at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and wanted to take Vivien Thomas with him, the hospital let Blalock know that Vivien Thomas would not be welcome.
But starting in 1944, Dr. Blalock performed the first heart operations at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore with Vivien Thomas standing on a stool behind him, looking over his shoulder. Blalock needed Thomas to coach him through the surgery Thomas had developed.
Years after doctors from around the country and around the world came to Johns Hopkins to learn the heart surgery techniques Vivien Thomas had developed and a year after Vivien Thomas developed a complex surgical technique called atrial septectomy, Thomas looked into fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor. He applied to Morgan State University. Morgan State ignored Thomas’ pioneering accomplishments and told him he would have to take all of the basic freshmen courses.
But Dr. Blalock had Vivien Thomas doing surgery alone on lab dogs within weeks of hiring him when Thomas was still 19 years old. The techniques Thomas developed became the basis for a variety of heart surgeries.
Johns Hopkins awarded Vivien Thomas an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1976. Today, Dr. Thomas’ portrait hangs next to Dr. Blalock’s portrait in the lobby of the Alfred Blalock Clinical Sciences Building at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Questions To Ask Yourself
“How many people in my life have benefited because a white male surgeon ignored all the wrongs and hired the right person for the job?”
“How much have I lost because someone else saw only the wrongs and refused to hire the right person for the job?”
“What can I do to encourage other people to hire the right person for the job so that I don’t lose any of the benefits the right person would create for my life?”
“How am I going to make sure I choose the right person for anything?”
In the decades before Dr. Blalock hired Vivien Thomas, individual doctors performed early forms of heart surgery. The surgery developed by Vivien Thomas and performed by Dr. Blalock was the surgery that made the world take notice and brought you whatever benefits heart surgery has created in your life.
Several on line references write about Vivien Thomas as a janitor. According to Thomas’ autobiography, he never worked as a janitor. He was paid as a janitor, but never worked as a janitor. Dr. Blalock hired Thomas to be a surgical research technician and put Thomas to work doing surgery on dogs his very first day of work. Within weeks, Dr. Blalock had Thomas doing the surgery by himself.
Paula M. Kramer
Resource Rock Star (See websites below.)
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