Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, April 30, 2010

Vivien Hamilton: surgeon-janitor

Creation: Spring & Easter
Sense make before book. (Grenada, Tobago)

A sister-author‘s comment on yesterday’s post led me to Vivien Thomas. She wrote, “Hamilton Naki is the Vivien Thomas of South Africa. Wow!!! When will we get our just due?”

When, indeed.

Like Naki, Thomas assisted a white surgeon, Alfred Blalock, in animal research. Like Naki, in a time or place without segregation Thomas would have been recognized everywhere for his medical research and his surgical skills. With no little education and no formal medical training, both men performed operations, did post-doctoral research, and trained student surgeons while holding menial positions: Naki as a gardener and Thomas as a janitor.

Thomas and Blalock worked together to disprove the theory that medical shock resulted form toxins in the blood. Their research into the causes of shock saved lives of thousands of soldiers in battle. At the same time, Blalock and Thomas worked on experiments that were to revolutionize heart surgery.

When Blalock became Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1941, he asked for Thomas join his team. Thomas then became the only Black employee (except for janitors) at Johns Hopkins. The appearance of this Black man in a white lab coat created as much confusion as his surgical skills without a medical degree.

When a paediatric heart surgeon sought a cure for blue baby syndrome Thomas had the answer. He created the blue baby condition in a dog, and then corrected the condition through surgery. Thomas worked on the process for about two years, operating on 200 dogs. Blalock performed the surgery only once, as Thomas’ assistant. Thomas therefore needed to direct Blalock step by step when the surgeon used the procedure for the first time on a child. At Blalock’s insistence, Thomas stood at his right shoulder for his first 100 operations on blue babies.

The medical world hailed the blue baby surgery as a breakthrough, and neither Blalock nor Johns Hopkins acknowledged Thomas’ contribution. Indeed, Johns Hopkins did not accept its first Black surgical students for another thirty years. Thomas continued to be so poorly paid that he sometimes worked as a bartender, often at Blalock’s parties. Lines between the two men may have been blurred in the lab, but the distinctions were reinforced in the medical school (low pay, separate bathrooms and entrances) and on social occasions. Johns Hopkins raised Thomas' salary and appointed him senior lab technician only when, in 1946, Thomas threatened to resign to return to carpentry.

Thomas (August 29, 1910 – November 26, 1985), grandson of a slave, was born in Louisiana and grew up in Tennessee. He wanted to become a doctor, and tried to earn money for his education by working as a carpenter and an orderly. The 1930s depression wiped out his savings and ended his dream. Thomas had difficulty finding permanent work of any kind, and was a janitor when Blalock hired him as laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt medical school. Within three days of his employment, Thomas was performing surgery on dogs. He tried to enter college again in 1950, but gave up on medical studies when his years of experience could not go to his credit.

Thomas’ partnership with Blalock lasted 34 years, and his work in surgical research continued for 15 years after Blalock's death. One of the many surgeons Thomas trained said of him, “Even if you'd never seen surgery before, you could do it because Vivien made it look so simple.”

In 1971, Thomas’s former medical students commissioned a painting of Thomas to be hung next to Blalock’s painting at Johns Hopkins. In 1976, Johns Hopkins presented Thomas with an honorary Doctor of Laws (not Doctor of Medicine), and in 1977 Thomas became an official member of the Johns Hopkins medical school faculty.

Thomas' story inspired the PBS documentary, "Partners of The Heart" and the HBO film, "Something The Lord Made."

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at