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?”
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."
Review of “Furyborn” by Claire Legrand
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