Topic | Vivien T. Thomas

Vivien T. Thomas

08/29/1910 to 11/26/1985


Vivien Theodore Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1910, the son of a carpenter. His family moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he graduated with honors from Pearl High School. In 1929 Vivien Thomas was preparing to attend medical school but the bank crash of 1930 wiped out his entire savings, destroying his lifelong dream to attend medical school. His lack of funds forced him to drop out of college and with work hard to come by amidst the Great Depression, he took a job sweeping floors at Vanderbilt University. 

At Vanderbilt University Dr. Alfred Blalock took notice of this African-American janitor and realized that he had the great potential to obtain so much more. Dr. Alfred Blalock hired Vivien Thomas as a laboratory technician where he worked sixteen hours a day in Vanderbilt University’s medical school laboratory.  Dr. Blalock noticed that Vivien Thomas was a fast learner with particularly skillful hands. He first worked with animals and began performing operations that would lead to Dr. Blalock’s studies of both high blood pressure and traumatic shock.

Vivien Thomas’ dedication to Blalock helped to develop the “Blue Baby” operation, most known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Blue Baby is a congenital defect involving complications of the heart and causes blood to be diverted past the lungs, resulting in a lack of oxygen throughout the body. The bluish color is caused due to the oxygen deprivation (cyanosis). If a baby were born with this condition before Vivien Thomas and Dr. Blalock’s operation, 25 % of those babies born with this condition died before their first birthday-by the age of ten, 70% would die. Needless to say, Vivien Thomas contribution to medicine is priceless.  

In his later years Vivien Thomas supervised the surgical laboratories at John Hopkins almost 40 years and was appointed instructor in surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1976. Upon his retirement in 1979, he became instructor emeritus of surgery. Vivien Thomas’s achievements didn’t go unnoticed and he was widely recognized by his colleagues and students. In 1976, the Johns Hopkins University awarded him the honorary degree Doctor of Laws.







Notable Facts

  • Blue Baby operation, Appointed instructor of surgery at John Hopkins School of Medicine,