Vivien Thomas dreamed of attending medical school as a young man, but saw those dreams dashed with the onset of the Great Depression. However, through hard work and perfect timing, he became a surgical assistant to a Vanderbilt University surgeon and the pair went on to revolutionize cardiac surgery.
Born August 29, 1910 in New Iberia, La., Thomas was raised in Nashville, Tenn. and attended college for one year at what is now known as Tennessee State University. During the devastating financial crash, Thomas took a low-paying janitorial job at Vanderbilt before becoming an understudy of heart surgeon, Dr. Alfred Blalock.
Thomas was a quick study and learned the intricacies of surgery while working on laboratory animals. The pair discovered early on that shock in humans was related to a rapid loss of blood and fluids, and Thomas invented a spring-like device that helped with varying levels of blood pressure during surgeries.
When Blalock was hired to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he insisted that Thomas be hired as his assistant. Although he faced Jim Crow-inspired racism in the Deep South, Thomas endured much more division in segregated Maryland. When Thomas walked the halls of Hopkins where most Blacks working there were in low-paying jobs, they wouldn’t even look at him.