Thomas College

Photograph of Vivien Thomas

Welcome to the Vivien T. Thomas College!
Learn about the faculty leaders in Thomas College by reading their faculty biographies.

About The Namesake

The namesake of Thomas College is truly one of the unsung heroes of medicine—a man whose tenacity, steadfast devotion to his work, and contributions to medicine have long gone unrecognized until today.

Dr. Vivien Thomas was born on August 29, 1910 in Louisiana, and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating from high school with honors, Thomas worked to save money for college, and eventually enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College. Sadly, the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out his savings, and Thomas was forced to drop out of school.

In 1930, Dr. Thomas became a laboratory technician for Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University. Thomas’ abilities as a surgical assistant and research associate were exceptional and when Blalock left Vanderbilt to become Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1941, he insisted that Thomas come to Baltimore to join him.

At Hopkins, Dr. Thomas worked closely with Dr. Blalock and Dr. Helen Taussig to pioneer the field of heart surgery with a procedure to alleviate the Tetralogy of Fallot, commonly known as the “blue baby syndrome”. Dr. Thomas developed and tested a procedure to correct this birth defect in animals. When the procedure was first performed on a human patient, Thomas stood behind Blalock and guided him as he operated. The procedure was a success, and was published in JAMA in May 1945. Unfortunately, Dr. Thomas was not given credit for the procedure.

Years passed and his dream of becoming a physician dwindled. Dr. Thomas resorted to working as a bartender while still working to manage Blalock’s labs. Finally, in 1971, surgeons around the country paid tribute to Thomas and hung a portrait of him in the Blalock Building here at Hopkins. In 1976, Dr. Thomas was presented with an honorary Doctorate of Laws and admitted to the faculty of the School of Medicine. Dr. Thomas died in 1985.

His impact on surgery, medicine, and Johns Hopkins has been unparalleled.

Medical historians have reflected that Vivien Thomas is perhaps the “most untalked about, unappreciated, unknown giant in the African American community.” Overcoming social and economic hardships, he made significant contributions to the field of medicine saving countless number of lives with his dedication to the procedures he developed and perfected.

Vivien Thomas taught a generation of surgeons and lab technicians. Residents and research fellows who worked with Thomas testified to his unique abilities and his dedication to his work.