He didn’t really use that bad pun in the title, did he? Oh, yes he did.
Trauma at Vanderbilt University
This leadership example covers two leaders that worked together to change the world, Dr. Alfred Blalock and Dr. Vivien Thomas. In 1930, Thomas took a position with Dr. Blalock as a lab assistant at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. A quick study, he took on many of Blalock’s jobs in the lab and the two men worked together to research methods of treating hemorrhaging and trauma that led to treatments of soldiers injured during World War II. In 1941, Dr. Blalock took the position as Chief Surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and director of the Johns Hopkins Medical School and he brought Mr. Thomas with him. It is there where they literally changed the world.
Blue Babies at Johns Hopkins
In 1944, Blalock and Thomas started working with Dr. Helen Taussig on the “blue baby syndrome”, a heart condition that restricts blood flow in infants. While surgical work on the heart was not unheard of, these two men broke ground in a procedure that was thought never possible and that no one else at the time would even consider, open heart surgery on an infant to permanently cure the condition. Mr. Thomas’s (he was not yet a doctor) work in the lab surpassed even Dr. Blalock’s proficiency in surgery and together they developed and successfully performed the surgery that not only saved the lives of many babies but led to the heart surgery methods and procedures used today. Willing to take a chance for what they thought was the right thing, these two gentlemen challenged the status quo and were true leaders in their field.
In addition to the surgical advanced, Blalock and Thomas faced another major challenge in leadership. Vivien Thomas was black.
The Challenges of Race
Even with no college degree, Mr. Thomas performed surgical procedures in a lab and trained other lab technicians and surgical students alike. He was known for his calm, quiet demeanor as well as his attention to detail and the ease with which he performed the most challenging of procedures. Students and coworkers marveled at his abilities. Dr. Blalock treated Thomas as a peer and the two men brainstormed together on the most advanced topics imaginable. Throughout much of this, Vivien Thomas was paid much less than white employees of the hospital and was given no credit for the surgical advancements. Dr. Blalock eventually successfully advocated for Vivien’s salary and position at the hospital, but the recognition for Mr. Thomas’s contributions did not come until many years later. In 1976, after 35 years at the hospital and contributing (if not creating) procedures that literally changed and saved lives, Johns Hopkins University bestowed Vivien Thomas with an honorary doctorate.
Dr. Vivien Thomas and his friend and colleague Dr. Alfred Blalock were leaders in every sense of the word. They led medical advances and they led by challenging the social climate of their day.
Something the Lord Made
The story of these two men is portrayed in the movie Something the Lord Made, starring Mos Def and Alan Rickman. Based on my reading, the movie may take occasional liberties (and what in Hollywood doesn’t), but it tells the story with pretty accurate detail.
Vanderbilt School of Medicine article on Dr. Vivien Thomas
American College of Surgeons article on Dr. Alfred Blalock.
This was written as a case study towards my MA in Leadership Studies at Northern Vermont University.