In celebration of Black History Month, Converse College will honor a virtually unknown medical giant in the black community whose skillful medical work helped to save many lives.
Vivien Thomas was at the center of a major advancement in heart surgery in the 1930s. Because of racial prejudices at the time, however, his achievements are rarely mentioned in history books. Thomas’ nephew, Dr. Koko Eaton, will speak at Converse Sunday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m. in Dalton Auditorium (Phifer Science Hall) as part of the College’s celebrations of Black History Month.
A product of private schools in Nashville, Tenn., Thomas’ desire was to attend medical school. To raise money for college, he worked as an orderly in a private infirmary before enrolling as a pre-med student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College in 1929. He was forced to drop out of school after the stock market crash. In 1930, he landed a position as a laboratory assistant with Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt Hospital.
When Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins University in 1941, he asked Thomas to join him. With the skillful assistance of Thomas, Blalock’s surgical team was able to develop a shunt technique to cure the Blue Baby Syndrome, a serious illness in infants which is caused when nitrate is converted into nitrite in the infant’s body. Nitrite interferes with the oxygen carrying capacity of the child’s blood (It replaces the oxygen on the red blood cells).
According to Partners of the Heart by Ronica Roth, Dr. Blalock asked Thomas to guide him through surgery of a tiny baby with Blue Baby Syndrome before a gallery of onlookers even though the Blalock had not even had the opportunity to practice the procedure on an animal. “That morning, and for the next hundred surgeries, Thomas stood on a stool behind Blalock and looked over his shoulder, quietly offering help and advice,” writes Roth. Johns Hopkins was a hierarchal institution with strict codes of protocol and dress. As a technician, Thomas was entitled to wear a white lab coat, but at the time, the only other blacks at Hopkins worked in the laundry. One day, Thomas left his laboratory and walked to the main hospital building. People there were appalled to see this black man walking around wearing a professional uniform,” said Baltimore Sun reporter Fraser Smith, “and they complained.”
Dr. Eaton, a surgeon himself, said, “He said there was such a big stink raised about it. People wanted him fired. So actually Blalock had a talk with him and said ‘Listen, when you go over to the hospital, take your lab coat off.’ He was a man with pride, but yet a lot of times that pride couldn’t show. So I think it was very tough for him.”