28 February 2014

Black History Month 2014 - Post #5

Dr. Vivien Thomas
This post brings together two topics that have been the subjects of posts here lately: Black History Month and autodidacticism, or self-education. Autodidacticism involves learning outside established norms and methods, even though that process may involve resources used within established norms, i.e. libraries, work in the particular field, mentoring, etc.) Case in point:Vivien Thomas. Thomas was the grandson of slaves and after losing his carpentry job during the Great Depression, he landed a job as a surgical research technician with Dr. Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Thomas and Blalock initially worked together doing experimental heart surgery on dogs. Though still classified as a janitor, by the mid 1930's Thomas was doing work equivalent to a postdoctoral researcher. Wikipedia notes the following:
Thomas and Alfred Blalock did groundbreaking research into the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. This work later evolved into research on Crush syndrome and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of World War II. In hundreds of flawlessly executed experiments, the two disproved traditional theories which held that shock was caused by toxins in the blood. Blalock, a highly original scientific thinker and something of an iconoclast, had theorized that shock resulted from fluid loss outside the vascular bed and that the condition could be effectively treated by fluid replacement. Assisted by Thomas, he was able to provide incontrovertible proof of this theory, and in so doing, he gained wide recognition in the medical community by the mid-1930s. At this same time, Blalock and Thomas began experimental work in vascular and cardiac surgery, defying medical taboos against operating upon the heart. It was this work that laid the foundation for the revolutionary lifesaving surgery they were to perform at Johns Hopkins a decade later.
I also found this Wiki comment interesting:
By 1940, the work Blalock had done with Thomas placed him at the forefront of American surgery, and when he was offered the position of Chief of Surgery at his alma mater Johns Hopkins in 1941, he requested that Thomas accompany him. Thomas arrived in Baltimore with his family in June of that year, confronting a severe housing shortage and a level of racism worse than they had endured in Nashville. (Emphasis mine)
Due mostly to Thomas's research and experiments, a procedure was developed to correct a condition in children known as "blue baby syndrome." Thomas initially received no credit nor acknowledgement for his work. That would eventually change. From Wiki:
In 1976, Johns Hopkins University presented Thomas with an honorary doctorate. However, because of certain restrictions, he received an Honorary Doctor of Laws, rather than a medical doctorate, but it did allow the staff and students of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to call him doctor. After having worked there for 37 years, Thomas was also finally appointed to the faculty of the School of Medicine as Instructor of Surgery.
HBO made a move of his life called Something The Lord Made and PBS's American Experience produced a documentary about Dr. Thomas titled, Partners of the Heart. I've seen the latter and it is quite good. Here's a clip from the PBS film, narrated by Morgan Freeman:

Thomas also wrote an autobiography.

That a black man in the 1930's and '40's in America could achieve what Thomas did with minimal formal education is a testament not only to his personal courage, talent and perseverance, but also to the possibilities of anyone who simply has a desire to learn. His example provides a dramatic example of the fact that you can teach yourself. And today, with technology offering so many options, no one can stop you. Go create your own miracle.

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