Vivien Theodore Thomas (1910-1985): An African-American laboratory technician who went on to become an innovator in cardiac surgery

J Med Biogr. 2017 May;25(2):106-113. doi: 10.1177/0967772015601566. Epub 2015 Aug 25.


Vivien Theodore Thomas (1910-1985) was an African-American laboratory technician and instructor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He was born as the grandson of a slave in Lousiana, working as a carpenter and subsequently as a laboratory technician after the great depression and the loss of his savings derailed his plans to become a doctor. In his role as a laboratory technician, he overcame challenging personal circumstances to become an innovator in paediatric cardiac surgery, despite having no formal college education. He played an important role in assisting Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig in the development of the 'Blalock-Taussig' shunt, a procedure used to improve the survival of children with cyanotic congenital heart defects. He also contributed to major breakthroughs in research covering a spectrum of disorders such as traumatic shock, coarctation of the aorta and transposition of the great arteries. He acted as a teacher and mentor to a generation of surgical residents and technicians who went on to become leaders in their field across the USA. A television film based on his life was premiered by HBO in 2004 titled 'Something the Lord made'.

Keywords: Blalock-Taussig shunt; Johns Hopkins; Tetralogy of Fallot; Vivien Thomas.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Baltimore
  • Cardiac Surgical Procedures
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Laboratory Personnel*
  • Thoracic Surgery / history*
  • Transposition of Great Vessels / surgery*
  • United States

Personal name as subject

  • Vivien Theodore Thomas