Degree(s): Honorary Doctorate of Laws
Undergraduate Institution: Tennessee State University (HBCU)
Graduate Institution: Johns Hopkins University
Photo Credit: Black Past
Dr. Vivien Thomas began his career in medicine as the lab assistant of Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University, and later following him to Johns Hopkins University. Lacking the funding to continue his college education at Tennessee State University due to the stock market crash of 1929, Dr. Thomas worked as Dr. Blalock’s assistant in vascular and cardiac surgery. Despite his lack of education, Dr. Thomas’ meticulous notes and natural intelligence allowed him to master what many medical doctors he worked for could never accomplish. Dr. Thomas was responsible for developing the procedure to treat blue baby syndrome, a congenital heart defect in infants. Even though he could not perform the procedure on patients, Dr. Thomas was responsible for literally guiding Dr. Blalock through the procedure during the operations. Following its success, he was not properly credited in research for developing the procedure, despite his abilities as an untrained surgeon exceeding his supervisor (Dr. Blalock). Dr. Thomas went on to train hundreds of medical doctors on this procedure and many more. While he never returned to college, Dr. Thomas was eventually awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Johns Hopkins University for his exemplary contributions to the medical field.
Fun Fact: Dr. Thomas’ story was spotlighted in the HBO film “Something the Lord Made,” which starred Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) as Dr. Thomas.