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  • Vivien Thomas Biography

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  • The life of Vivien Thomas is an inspiring story of an African-American pioneer who overcame the barriers imposed by a segregated society. With no formal medical training, he developed techniques and tools that would lead to today's modern heart surgery. In operating rooms all over the world, great surgeons who received their training from Vivien Thomas are performing life-saving surgical procedures. We honor his legacy with the naming of the Vivien Thomas High School Research Program at the Morehouse School of Medicine. The Vivien Thomas Research Program for high school students was established to provide experiences in the research laboratories at the Morehouse School of Medicine. Students conduct research for six weeks under the direction of a medical school faculty member and learn the content, process and methodology involved in inquiry science. At the end of this summer experience, students present their research findings to the faculty and staff at MSM.

    Vivien T. Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana on August 29, 1910. His family later moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was educated in the public schools. In 1929, after working as an orderly in a private infirmary to raise money for college, he enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College. The bank crash that year wiped out his life's savings, forcing him to drop out of school.

    In 1930, he took a position at Vanderbilt University as a laboratory assistant with Alfred Blalock. Thomas' abilities as a surgical assistant and research associate were of the highest quality, and when Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins in 1941 he asked Thomas to accompany him. Thomas joined Blalock's surgical team and helped to develop the procedure used in the "blue baby" operation. He helped train many of the surgeons at Johns Hopkins in the delicate techniques necessary for heart and lung operations.

    Thomas was a member of the medical school faculty from 1976 until 1985 and was presented with the degree of Honorary Doctor of Laws by the Johns Hopkins University in 1976. Today, in operating rooms all over the world, there are great surgeons performing life saving surgical procedures who received their training from Vivien Thomas. His achievements stand as a testament to the power of research, discovery, and persistence to improve the health of generations to come, a legacy we honor with the naming of the Vivien Thomas High Summer Research Program at Morehouse School of Medicine.