If Vivien Thomas visited NIH today, he would walk through the
main entrance of the Clinical Research Center. Our most eminent
surgeons and scientists might greet him. From the podium in Masur
Auditorium, he would present his latest research findings to a
mix of students, postdoctoral fellows, scientists and clinicians
of varied races and nationalities. Afterward, he might mingle with
the audience for further discussions or talk with other NIH researchers
over lunch. Yet during the life and times of Vivien Thomas, none
of that would have happened.
The incredible accomplishments of Thomas and his colleagues are
depicted in the HBO docudrama Something the Lord Made.
The film was recently screened for the Office of Science Education's "Science
in the Cinema" program to a crowd at the American Film Institute's
Silver Theater in Silver Spring. The event went beyond its usual
scope because of the film's poignant content and special guests
|On hand at the recent OSE-sponsored
film were (from l) Dr. J. Alex Haller (guest speaker at Science
in the Cinema); Clayton LeBouef (who played Vivien Thomas’s
brother in the film); Jessica Floria (who played a pediatric
patient at Hopkins); John Leslie Wolfe (who played Dr. Walter
Dandy, leading surgeon at Hopkins); and Kate McCabe, who wrote
the article on which the film was based.
The film tells a true story in which medical science, history
and sociology converge. It follows the 34-year association of two
men who overcame social stigma and developed a revolutionary technique
that would save countless lives.
In 1930, Vivien Thomas was a 19-year-old African American carpenter
who dreamed of going to medical school. Dr. Alfred Blalock was
a white surgeon and a rising star among his peers. In the lab,
Blalock asked the scientific questions. Thomas figured out the
best ways to find the answers. With only a high school education,
Thomas assumed the role of a senior research fellow and developed
into a talented surgical technician. He devised unique surgical
instruments and worked out complex techniques in animal models.
The film's title comes from Blalock's remarks about the nearly
flawless healing of a surgical incision Thomas made in a canine
The pair's achievements are even more remarkable because of the
setting in which they took place. It was an era marked by the Great
Depression, World War II, racial tension and segregation. The young
lawyer Thurgood Marshall had just begun to champion the cause of
civil rights and the desegregation of schools. So in 1941, when
Blalock and Thomas came to Johns Hopkins University from Nashville,
people stared at Thomas in his white lab coat. At that time and
place, black employees were janitors and had separate building
entrances and rest rooms. This unusual duo was about to open a
lot of previously locked doors in medicine and society.
Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist at Hopkins, approached
Blalock for help with her "blue babies." These patients have a
congenital syndrome — tetralogy of Fallot — that limits
blood flow to the lungs. The resulting lack of oxygen makes their
skin appear blue. Blalock accepted the challenge and began to work
with Thomas on developing a corrective procedure.
In 1944, Blalock performed surgery on a young girl while Thomas
stood behind him, coaching him through the procedure he had perfected.
By rearranging blood vessels, the team turned the blue baby pink
again. That first successful operation launched the modern field
of cardiac surgery and simultaneously rattled the social status
Following the film, the Science in the Cinema audience was treated
to an insider's perspective. The guest speaker and expert in the
film's medical subject was Dr. J. Alex Haller, emeritus professor
of pediatric surgery, pediatrics and emergency medicine at Johns
Hopkins Hospital. Haller had trained with Blalock during his residency
and had first-hand knowledge of the events portrayed in the film.
He spent over 100 hours as a consultant to HBO producers during
the making of the movie. Also present were three actors from the
film and Katie McCabe, who wrote the award-winning article on which
the film was based ("Like Something the Lord Made," Washingtonian magazine,
Haller added his own stories to those presented in the film. He
emphasized a point he felt was not made clear. He said that Thomas's "role
as the teacher of medical students, residents and junior faculty
members was a critically important part of the training of cardiac
surgeons at John Hopkins. He trained many technicians and helped
other doctors in their research, including those at NIH."
Haller spent a year working in an NIH research lab with Alfred
Casper. Both men had trained at Johns Hopkins and were working
on a study involving heart-valve abnormalities. During a canine
surgery, Haller skillfully halted a serious bleeding episode. "That
was beautifully done," Casper said. Haller replied that he had "trained
with Alfred Blalock." On a subsequent occasion, Casper managed
a more severe bleeding problem. "That was fabulously done," remarked
Haller. Casper replied, "with a twinkle in his eye, 'I trained
with Vivien Thomas.'"
The audience learned more through a question-and-answer exchange
with Haller. In response to a question about the use of animals
in research, Haller recalled an incident from the 1950s when Taussig
received a standing ovation from a crowd of animal rights activists
in Baltimore. Holding her poodle in her arms, she said, "He's alive
because of what we have learned about human congenital heart abnormalities." Thomas
and Haller had performed life-saving surgery on the dog.
Haller confirmed the Blalock-Thomas partnership. "The relationship
was different outside the hospital as was typical of our society
then. Vivien was treated just like a colleague. On the other hand,
they [Thomas and Blalock] had different bathrooms."
McCabe praised the film's accuracy and subtlety in portraying
the diverse social worlds of the principal characters. "That's
one of the beauties of film. You can create a context of the social
environment...without a single line of dialogue," she said. She
also gave high praise to the script writer, Peter Silverman, who
was able to capture the nuances of the Blalock-Thomas relationship.
If Thomas visited NIH today, he'd be stepping into a new world — one
he helped pioneer.