Thursday, April 30, 2015

Helen Taussig saved the blue babies

She was severely dyslexic, years behind in school, and female. The professor of her class on histology (the study of the microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues of plants and animals) would not let her speak to the male students for fear of "contamination." Heck, neither Harvard Medical School nor Boston University would grant her a degree. But Helen Brooke Taussig was made of sterner stuff. She would persevere and change medicine for the better by performing open heart surgery that saved the blue babies. Later, she would lead the fight to ban Thalidomide, which was used for morning sickness, but created disastrous limb deformities in babies.

Helen Taussig came into the world on May 24, 1898, when American women could not vote. Her father was an economics professor at Harvard and her mother was one of the first students at Radcliffe College, a women's college. Helen Taussig's grandfather was a physician, which likely influenced her eventual decision to enter medicine.

Tuberculosis struck the family when she was 9, killing her mother and setting Taussig's education back a few years as she battled illness. But she attended Radcliffe for two years before graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1921. She was 23. While she took classes at Harvard, she could not get a degree there, She applied at Johns Hopkins, and was accepted. This was the beginning of a lifelong partnership that served her and the university well.

In 1925, she published her first scientific paper on ox heart muscles. She would go on to publish 128 more in her career, 41 after she retired. Graduating in 1927, she stayed at the school thanks to fellowships, as she studied cardiology and worked as a pediatric intern. There was no such thing as pediatric cardiology until she came along. She worked as the head of Johns Hopkins rheumatic fever department. In 1930, she was named head of pediatrics, a position she would hold until 1963 when she retired at 65.

Her first concern was anoxemia -- "blue baby syndrome." She found the problem: partial blockage of the pulmonary artery,either alone or combined with a hole between the ventricles of the infant's heart. Fixing the problem involved heart surgery. On babies. She approached Robert E. Gross, the leading pediatric cardiac surgeon of the day, with the idea of creating ductuses to correct the heart problems of blue babies. She had observed the babies did well until those ductuses closed. Years later, she said his reply was, "Madam, I close ductuses, I do not make new ductuses."

Enter Alfred Blalock, a Southern boy and a ladies man, and a brilliant surgeon. Not only would he work with a woman doctor to fix this problem -- apparently unafraid of being contaminated -- but his lab technician was an African-American carpenter, Vivien Thomas, who was saving his money for medical school when the Great Depression hit and his bank collapsed. He lost everything. Thomas and Blalock first teamed up at Vanderbilt, where officially, Thomas's title was janitor. It was the South and a time of segregation so severe that black people could not use the same drinking fountains. However, they developed a mutual trust and respect over the years.

In 1941, Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins, serving as surgeon-in-chief of the hospital, professor, and director of the department of surgery of the medical school. Thomas moved with him. Taussig joined the team to tackle the problem of blue babies. The three of them would work to create the Blalock–Thomas–Taussig shunt, which was the first breakthrough that allowed doctors to save the lives of babies. Seventy years later, Johns Hopkins understandably is proud of the pioneering work of Taussig and company.

"In 1944 doctors at Johns Hopkins performed the surgery that opened the door to today's heart surgery.Working together, The Johns Hopkins Hospital's chief surgeon, Dr. Alfred Blalock, his technician Vivien Thomas, and pediatric cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig devised a means for improving the flow of oxygen into the blood by connecting one of the heart's major arteries with another feeding into the lungs. Known as the Blue Baby Operation, it brought relief to a young girl plagued with a combination of heart defects that kept her blood so starved for oxygen that her skin was literally blue. In time the procedure not only helped save the lives of thousands of similarly afflicted children around the world, but also opened the door to now-familiar procedures like coronary bypass surgery," according to the university's official history.

Dr. Eugene A. Hesel of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine later wrote, "The first clinical attempt was a success, and in the following year 55 patients underwent the Blalock-Taussig operation, with a mortality rate of 20%. By the end of 1950, they had operated on 1,037 patients, and the mortality rate had fallen to less than 5%."

This knowledge of treating babies would be passed up to work on adults. Laymen would think it would work the other way around. What patience and skills these doctors had. Of course, doctors now use artificial tubing that is as small as 3 millimeters. But what wonderful work they pioneered.

Taussig also pioneered using X-rays and fluoroscopy to examine the working of a baby's heart. She overcame severe hearing problems later in life through lip reading.

Incredibly, she would not become a full professor until 1959 -- a dozen years after she published "Congenital Malformations of the Heart," a paper that was the genesis of considering pediatric cardiology an independent field. But she also received the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson for her work in 1964. In 1965, she was elected president of the American Heart Association.

After she retired, her work to help children continued. In 1967, she testified in Congress to urge a ban on Thalidomide. She died four days short of her 88th birthday, on May 20, 1986, as she drove friends to vote in the local election. A collision at an intersection killed her instantly.

Some may say she never married and left no children. They would be wrong. She left behind thousands of babies who grew up. And those who were women and wanted to become doctors had it easier because she took her limited opportunities and maximized them.

NOTE: The first volume of Exceptional Americans, published by Amazon's Create Space, is now available.


  1. Replies
    1. One of my favorite readers suggested it

  2. Both my niece and my daughter were born with Tetralogy of Fallot, the same condition that the little girl who had the first Blue Baby Operation had. (I think her name was Eileen.)

    Both little girls have a form of "Helen" in their names. ;)

    When my daughter gets older, I'll have to tell her about Dr Taussig. She's 5 now, healthy as can be, and has a bright future thanks to her work.

    1. Wow, Yes it was Tetralogy of Fallot. I avoid scientific terms because I know so little about science, I would qualify as a liberal.