It was known that children with Fallot's who also had a patent ductus arteriosus were less cyanosed and this led to the idea of whether it might be possible to create a shunt between a great vessel and the pulmonary artery in order to supply blood to the lung. After painstaking laboratory work this resulted in the introduction of what is commonly called the "Blalock-Taussig shunt." In this procedure the left subclavian artery was anastomosed to the pulmonary artery. The operation was first performed at Johns Hopkins on 29th October 1944 and represented the first effective treatment for this condition and it is still used in a modified form today. It was published in JAMA in 1945.
When it came to the scientific and the surgical technical aspects of the shunt his own autobiography and detailed research has demonstrated that the primary contribution was from Thomas. Most of the fundamental studies were done by him and Blalock only did one practice procedure in a dog before performing the first surgery on a 15-month-old girl. As the photograph shows Thomas stood behind Blalock during the procedure to provide advice.
At a time of racial segregation and discrimination in America, Thomas’s contribution to the development of the shunt
procedure remained relatively unknown outside Hopkins. He was ignored by the world’s press and media and the procedure became known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. He was not even acknowledged for technical contributions in the original paper. However in time, as political and civil rights movements led to change in attitudes towards race, Thomas's exceptional contribution to the development of this pioneering heart surgery was recognised. His portrait now hands in the hallowed corridors of the Johns Hopkins Hospital alongside Dr Alfred Blalock, Sir William Osler, Dr Harvey Cushing and Dr William Halsted – legends of modern clinical medicine.
October is Black History Month. You have probably heard of Rosa Parks, Mary Seacole and Claudia Jones but the story of Vivien Thomas is not well known outside of Johns Hopkins. Thomas made a huge contribution to the birth of cardiac surgery and thus plays an important part in the history of medicine. He is a wonderful example of how despite segregation a black man fought against the odds and was key in developing a life-saving operation used to treat thousands of children worldwide. Perhaps it’s time to officially rename the Blalock-Taussig shunt the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt and give him his rightful place in Black History month.