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Johns Hopkins Medicine
Office of Communications and Public Affairs
Media Contact: Gary Stephenson
May 26, 2004

Honors heart surgery pioneer immortalized in HBO Film

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine announced today the establishment of the Vivien Thomas Fund for Diversity to increase the number of minorities in the academic medicine talent pool. The Fund honors the memory of the African-American surgical technician whose pivotal contributions to the development of the "blue baby" operation at Hopkins 60 years ago ushered in the era of heart surgery.

"With the help of private philanthropy, we can reach out to groups considered under-represented minorities and ensure their broadest possible representation in biomedical science and academic medicine," said Edward D. Miller, M.D., dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "We can best honor Vivien Thomas by removing for others the economic and racial barriers that often stood in his way," Miller added.

Denied the chance to go to medical school by financial losses in the Great Depression, Thomas also was for many years denied -because of his race -  the recognition he deserved for his work on the team that devised a means to correct a congenital heart defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot or blue baby syndrome. His story is the subject of the HBO feature film "Something the Lord Made," scheduled to air May 30 and of the PBS documentary "Partners of the Heart," which was based on Thomas' autobiography. Thomas died in 1985.

Operating on the heart was considered beyond reach in the 1940s when Thomas helped design and perfect in animal models the operation imagined by surgeon Alfred Blalock and pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig to repair the heart defect. Similarly out of reach were equal opportunities for blacks at Hopkins and elsewhere in academic medicine. Thomas' intellect and skills had won him the post of Blalock's lab tech, but it took more than 25 years for him to be credited publicly for his role in devising the blue baby surgery.

In 1976, The Johns Hopkins University awarded him an honorary doctorate, and today his portrait hangs in the same lobby of the Blalock Building at The Johns Hopkins Hospital as Alfred Blalock's portrait. The Vivien Thomas Fund, Miller says, "is an extension of our commitment to diversity." In 2004, more than 11 percent of Hopkins medical students are black, as are more than 60 of the full-time faculty, including such luminaries as surgeons Levi Watkins, Ben Carson and Edward Cornwell, and Vice Dean for Education David Nichols.

To contribute to the Vivien Thomas Fund, contact:The Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine
  c/o The Vivien Thomas Fund
  One Charles Center
  100 N. Charles Street
  Baltimore, MD 21201
  (410) 516-6800 or

                                                                   - -JHMI- -

To interview those involved in setting up the Vivien Thomas Fund, contact Gary Stephenson at
410-955-5384 or