Vivien Theodore Thomas (August 29, 1910 – November 26, 1985) was an African-American surgical technician who developed the procedures used to treat blue baby syndrome in the 1940s. He was an assistant to surgeon Alfred Blalock in Blalock’s experimental animal laboratory at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and later at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Without any education past high school, Thomas rose above poverty and racism to become a cardiac surgery pioneer and a teacher of operative techniques to many of the country’s most prominent surgeons. Vivien Thomas was the first African American without a doctorate to perform open heart surgery on a white patient in the United States.
There is a television film based on his life entitled Something The Lord Made and it premiered in May 2004 on HBO.
Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana. The grandson of a slave, he attended Pearl High School in Nashville in the 1920s. Thomas had hoped to attend college and become a doctor, but the Great Depression derailed his plans. He worked at Fisk University in the summer of 1929 doing carpentry but was laid off in the fall. In the wake of the stock market crash in October, Thomas put his educational plans on hold, and, through a friend, in February 1930 secured a job as surgical research technician with Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. On his first day of work, Thomas assisted Blalock with a surgical experiment on a dog. At the end of Thomas’s first day, Blalock told Thomas they would do another experiment the next morning. Blalock told Thomas to “come in and put the animal to sleep and get it set up”. Within a few weeks, Thomas was starting surgery on his own. Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor, despite the fact that by the mid-1930s, he was doing the work of a postdoctoral researcher in the lab.
Before meeting Blalock, Thomas married Clara and had two daughters. When Nashville’s banks failed nine months after starting his job with Blalock and Thomas’ savings were wiped out, he abandoned his plans for college and medical school, relieved to have even a low-paying job as the Great Depression deepened.
Thomas and Alfred Blalock did groundbreaking research into the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. This work later evolved into research on Crush syndrome and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of World War II. In hundreds of flawlessly executed experiments, the two disproved traditional theories which held that shock was caused by toxins in the blood. Blalock, a highly original scientific thinker and something of an iconoclast, had theorized that shock resulted from fluid loss outside the vascular bed and that the condition could be effectively treated by fluid replacement. Assisted by Thomas, he was able to provide incontrovertible proof of this theory, and in so doing, he gained wide recognition in the medical community by the mid-1930s. At this same time, Blalock and Thomas began experimental work in vascular and cardiac surgery, defying medical taboos against operating upon the heart. It was this work that laid the foundation for the revolutionary lifesaving surgery they were to perform at Johns Hopkins a decade later.