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Character, genius, and a missing person in medicine | Hektoen International Journal

“He is the most un-talked about, unacknowledged, unknown and most important figure in the African American community…A genius.”1 In 1944, a surgeon with his trusted guide by his side performed the very first open-heart surgery on a fifteen-month-old, nine-pound girl.

1930, Nashville. A twenty-year old African-American man, honors student, and son of a carpenter had his eyes set on becoming a physician. This was not unfounded. In his middle class community there were fire fighters, doctors, and teachers. Working as a carpenter he saved for seven years to finance his education. But then the Great Depression hit, banks foreclosed, and he lost everything. To support his wife and two children, he needed a job. A doctor at Vanderbilt was looking for someone to assist in his research lab. When Mr. Vivien Thomas entered the lab and met Dr. Alfred Blalock, the world would be forever changed.

The job was to clean the lab and the cages of the animals used for experiments. Dr. Blalock, a onetime playboy from a prominent family in Georgia had evolved into a passionate researcher. He was studying shock. Many soldiers’ lives had been lost due to this cardiovascular condition. Vivien gazed at the shelf of medical text books and the table of test tubes and took the job. His title was janitor.


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