Partners of the Heart

By Roth, Ronica | Humanities, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Partners of the Heart


Roth, Ronica, Humanities


The surgeon stood over the tiny baby, poised to try a new life-saving technique on her heart. He had not yet had a chance to practice on an animal, but the baby's situation was acute. He turned to Vivien Thomas, an African American lab assistant who had only a high school diploma. Thomas had helped develop the procedure, test the surgery, and even design the instruments.

Before a gallery of onlookers, Dr. Alfred Blalock summoned Thomas to the operating room to guide him through the surgery. 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.

The partnership of Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas defied convention and revolutionized cardiac surgery. Their story is told in the NEH-funded documentary Partners of the Heart, narrated by Morgan Freeman. The film premiered at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and will air as part of PBS's American Experience series on February 10. The film depicts how Blalock and Thomas resisted the rules of segregated America during thirty-five years of collaboration.

"It was a relationship that transgressed the rules, that crossed the boundaries, that subverted the hierarchy," says Don Doyle, professor of Southern history at Vanderbilt University. "Despite all the laws aimed at keeping the races apart, these men met as two human beings, as two scientists, as two minds."

Blalock and Thomas began their relationship at the height of Jim Crow segregation, in Nashville in 1930. Vivien Thomas grew up in North Nashville, the city's African American community, which had a thriving middle class with its own doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs.

Thomas, the son of a carpenter, planned to become a doctor, but shortly after his graduation from Pearl High School in 1929 the stock market crashed and Thomas lost seven years' worth of money he had saved for college. Bitterly disappointed, the nineteen-year-old took a job as a laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt Medical School working for Blalock His job classification: janitor.

Alfred Blalock, thirty-two at the time, was from an old, aristocratic southGeorgia family. Blalock went to Johns Hopkins University to study medicine. There he developed a reputation as a playboy more than a student. When he was denied a residency at Johns Hopkins, he ended up in the "backwater" of Nashville and eventually became the director of the research laboratory.

Blalock set his laboratory onto the task of researching shock trauma, a phenomenon that at the time cost thousands of lives during surgery. Blalock quickly saw potential in Thomas and taught him to be his technician, running and recording experiments.

Blalock was short-tempered and a perfectionist. One day when Thomas had made some mistake, he hurled expletives at the young man. Thomas first walked away, but then decided he would not accept that kind of treatment. I went across the hall to Dr. Blalock's office," Thomas wrote in his autobiography.

I told him I had not been raised to take that kind of language. I was leaving."

According to historian Nat Crippens, "Dr. Blalock actually apologized to this nineteen-year-old young'un. And he said, 'I'll never do that again.' And through the subsequent thirty-four years, Dr. Blalock never did yell at Thomas again. And that was the beginning of their mutual respect for each other."

The two men worked together for the next several years. They succeeded in proving that shock was caused by loss of blood and other fluids, a discovery that within a decade would save millions of lives on the battlefields of World War II.

In late nights together at the lab, Thomas and Blalock would share a drink and talk about science. Outside the laboratory, however, they maintained the separation that was both practice and law.

"Vivien was not a coequal by any stretch of the imagination," says Surgeon Levi Watkins. …

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