Vivien T. Thomas, L.L.D.Supervisor of
Surgical Research Laboratories
1910 – 1985
Portrait of Vivien T. Thomas
by Bob Gee, Oil on Canvas, 1969
Vivien T. Thomas was a key player in pioneering the anastomosis of the subclavian artery to the pulmonary artery.The surgical work he performed with Alfred Blalock paved the way for the successful outcome of the Blalock-Taussig shunt.
In January 1930, Vivien Thomas, a young African-American who was forced for lack of funds to leave his first year of college, came to work for Blalock in his laboratory. At that point Blalock’s increasing obligations were cutting into the time he could spend in the laboratory and he needed a surgical assistant. A more fortunate choice could not have been made. Vivien Thomas learned to perform the surgical operations and chemical determinations needed for their experiments, to calculate the results, and to keep precise records; he remained an invaluable associate throughout Blalock’s career.
Blalock and Thomas worked closely in the surgical laboratories. Thomas was a major contributor in the development of operative techniques. He and Blalock also collaborated on the design of surgical equipment. Shown here is a clamp for the temporary occlusion of the pulmonary artery, which was devised for Blalock’s use by Vivien Thomas and William Longmire, working with the local surgical supply house Murray Baumgartner & Co.
Photograph by Marjorie Winslow Kehoe, 1996
Thomas supervised the surgical laboratories at Hopkins for over 35 years, and in 1976 he was appointed instructor in surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 1979, upon his retirement, he became instructor emeritus of surgery. Vivien Thomas’s achievements were widely recognized by his colleagues. In 1976, he was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Laws, by the Johns Hopkins University.
Thomas with Helen Taussig, and Steven Muller, President of The Johns Hopkins University at graduation ceremonies in 1976, during which Thomas was honored.