Today is the birthday of Vivien Theodore Thomas (August 29, 1910 – November 26, 1985), the African-American surgical technician who developed the procedures used to treat blue baby syndrome in the 1940s. He was an assistant to surgeon Alfred Blalock in Blalock’s experimental animal laboratory at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and later at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.


Without any education past high school, Thomas rose above poverty and racism to become a cardiac surgery pioneer and a teacher of operative techniques to many of the country’s most prominent surgeons. Vivien Thomas was the first African American without a doctorate degree to perform open heart surgery on a white patient in the United States.

Vivien Thomas portrait by Bob Gee

Vivien Thomas in an oil portrait by Bob Gee.

There is an excellent television film based on his life entitled Something The Lord Made. It premiered in May 2004 on HBO. Mos Def stars as Thomas. It can be viewed free online through YouTube, Amazon, and Netflix.