Affairs of the Heart: Dr. Helen Taussig

Affairs of the Heart: Dr. Helen Taussig 

❤  On a late November day in 1944, bright sunlight streamed upon the blue-tinged body of 18 month old Eileen Saxon, who was hovering near death. Born with a congenital heart defect that prevented her blood from being oxygenated by her lungs, she now weighed little more than 9 pounds. Across the ocean, World War II raged on, but at the Johns Hopkins University hospital in Baltimore, another type of history was being made. Under the gaze of 706 doctors gathered around, Dr. Alfred Blalock meticulously rerouted an artery heading to the child’s arm, back to the lungs giving the oxygen-starved blood a second chance of rejuvenation. The anesthesiologist cried out in astonishment as Eileen’s lips turned from blue to a healthy red. That was the start of a successful procedure that would cure thousands of “blue babies” in the brand new era of heart surgery that followed. Today, we remember Dr. Helen Taussig, whose brilliant idea it was that set the stage.

❤ Born on this day, May 24, in 1898, Helen took medical classes at both Harvard and Boston Universities although neither would award her a degree because of her gender. Worse, she was forbidden to speak to her male colleagues in histology class because of fears that she would “contaminate” them. She completed her MD degree at Johns Hopkins and there, as a pediatric cardiologist did extensive work with anoxemia, or blue baby syndrome. She noticed that blue babies with an additional heart defect (called PDA) fared better, and that a shunt that mimicked PDA could be the solution. She pitched the idea of getting more blood to the lungs much “as a plumber changes pipes around” to surgeon Alfred Blalock and his technician Vivien Thomas. Thomas, a black man whose education did not go beyond high school, practiced the surgery in the animal lab and after modifying instruments for use in humans, coached Dr. Blalock through the first hundred surgeries in infants. In 1976, Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate. Sadly, little Eileen became cyanotic again in a few months and did not survive past 2 years even though other babies would go on to live healthy lives. Today, a modified version of the shunt is performed using a synthetic Gore-Tex graft (lower right image). 

¸¸.•*¨*•♫ Happy Birthday, Dr. Taussig!  

Image Note: Helen Taussig became deaf in later years, and actually used her fingers rather than a stethoscope to feel the rhythm of heartbeats.


#ScienceSunday   #STEMWomen  

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50 Responses to Affairs of the Heart: Dr. Helen Taussig

  1. Thanks Dr. Taussig, I’m glad they named the procedure after her.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Chris Veerabadran indeed, she is widely recognized for her role in this surgery. She went on to do much more, and is also credited to have brought awareness to the harmful effects of thalidomide on infant development. 

  3. Rajini Rao They should’ve given her a Nobel Prize, how many lives she must’ve saved with her works.

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Chris Veerabadran yes, at that time, it was unheard of to try something so invasive on the heart. The heart was considered too complex, vital and central to life for such a bold procedure. She did receive the “American Nobel” or Lasker Prize (many winners do go on to get the Nobel). 

  5. Gaythia Weis says:

    It sounds to me as if both Dr. Helen Taussig and technician Vivien Thomas deserve our efforts to gain them more recognition, in honor of their perseverance in the face of discrimination, and as an object lesson as to how much society has to lose in failures to provide equal opportunity.  Thanks for posting this, Rajini Rao !

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Gaythia Weis absolutely, agree! The procedure was renamed to include Vivien Thomas, whose technical skill was critical for the process to work. Although he could not perform surgery on humans, not having a doctoral degree, he stood by Blalock and coached him. Shockingly, his position and pay was that of janitor at the time! 

  7. Goes to show that people can work very well for a common good without the overwhelming need to claim fame, irrespective of gender or their vocation.  I wish for this moon – that there were more people of different fields getting together to synthesize innovative solutions that are helpful to all of Humankind.

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Rashmi Pahuja an excellent wish, one that we all can share. 

  9. Gaythia Weis says:

    I think that a little more recognition would have gone a long way.  What if Vivien Thomas had been able to be a surgeon?   What if it hadn’t taken Dr. Helen Taussig 3 tries to get a medical school that would graduate her?  What about all the others for whom opportunity was also denied?  This isn’t about a “need” to claim fame, IMHO, it is about a need to allow people to reach their potentials.

  10. I was acknowledging the fact that Dr Alfred Blalock didnt do what is usually done – “I did the surgery that worked, therefore this is my baby to claim.”   🙂 I am glad he had a conscience and the open mindedness that is very crucial for a field that had very few women to begin with.

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    Yes, indeed. But it’s remarkable how many people (typically men) argue otherwise. On the STEM Women on G+ page, someone wrote that “Maybe there is not a problem and it’s just men and woman  having different preferences?” You only need to read the comments on any post on this topic to see how frustrating it is to have to repeatedly address this problem. 

  12. I have tried showing the different aspects of how “Preferences” are nurtured in children from the time they are born…Most dont get that it is a learned behaviour, that it becomes a habit after a while and that it is an unconscious bias – the concept that women and men prefer different things. We are indoctrinated, manipulated, influenced and trained that way….Maybe it is was necessary at some point in evolution but clearly when it isnt working, we have to change with changing times.

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    Rashmi Pahuja Alfred Blalock must have been a remarkable man. Although he was not particularly stellar as a medical student, he went on to develop blood transfusions as a treatment in shock therapy on the battlefield. His life long friendship with Thomas is also heartwarming 🙂

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    Eloquently put, Rashmi Pahuja . Girls and boys are “socialized” differently, and there are studies that show how long lasting these effects can be. “Stereotype threat” actually has physiological effects on brain function and is not an imaginary thing! 

  15. Mam you will always be remember for your great work thanks a lot for your performance

  16. Simple example is the Pink vs Blue preferences. I remember it never bothered me as long as I lived in India, and now I have learned it after a couple of decades of immersion into a culture that follows it to the T.  This in spite of my awareness of what is happening to me and my preferences. I have given into the subtle enforcement – only pinks in the girls section, only blues in the mens section or dark colours or if there are monochromes other than pink there are characters that are “girly” or “boyish” . It is an enforcement of culture, you give in cause you pick your battles, I dont want to be tired when I die.

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    The pink vs. blue labels are so idiotic! As you say, this color preference is unheard of in India where boys are happily clothed in pink or whatever bright colors their mamma happens to like 🙂 Strangely, the historical preference in the European/English custom was actually the other way around. 

  18. Rajini Rao says:

    This is hilarious: June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

  19. Oh the Irony!! the same goes for fashion trends,  what is done and not done on etiquette,  gender-designated chores, morals etc. If they werent enforced, I feel it would have been whatever works without conflict between the two parties involved.

  20. Adit Morey says:

    It’s a very interesting information about Dr. Taussig’s pioneering work on congenital heart anomalies infants. But it saddened me to hear that she was not awarded a degree as she was a woman.

  21. Rajini Rao says:

    Times were tough back then for women, Adit Morey . Getting better everyday 🙂

  22. science clasical wonderfull

  23. Joe Repka says:

    HBO did a nice film about Thomas and Blalock (““), but I don’t recall how Dr. Taussig’s role was portrayed. Will have to view it again. One thing I took from the film is reinforcement of the idea that delicate surgery is a special manual skill, an idea I learned as a medical technician in the military. A doctor can be brilliant in many ways, yet not be good at surgery; a person can be brilliant at surgery without being a well-rounded medical practicioner. 

  24. Rajini Rao says:

    Joe Repka I’ve not seen the film but the Wiki page on Taussig mentions that she has a part in the story. I’ll put it on my viewing list! 

  25. Nxkmj,u!nmx,ft g. cnbvcnvhn:vwzwns

  26. Bill Collins says:

    Wow. What a story.

  27. Dave Lee says:

    My daughter at 2 was diagnosed with a related congenital defect , arteral graft was done at age 2 and she is now a healthy 27 year old with 2 heathy children . Thank god for those people. I did not know that story ,but miss Rao thankyou

  28. Dave Lee says:

    Thank you and it did!

  29. MiMi Robs says:

    Thanks for that onderdil story miss rao

  30. Marcos Dias says:


  31. Dr. Helen is a good person helping children out and save their lives helping the baby was born with a congenital heart defect that had prevented blood from being oxygenated by her lungs she weighed little more than 9 pounds.

  32. You are very nice program I wiser, s thank you….

  33. She is a helping person to help babies with sickness cancer and all people van help babies stay alive

  34. This one sent chills down my spine. In a good way. 🙂 (I missed this one, thank goodness for Twitter!)

  35. Rajini Rao says:

    Michelle Beissel the scene of a surgical theater with over 700 doctors looking on (how is that possible?!) in a sunlit room, while WWII raged on in the world outside makes for terrific drama. Fortunately for us, we have detailed accounts of the event, down to the exclamation from the anesthesiologist when the little patient’s lips turned from blue to red. 

  36. Rajini Rao, red is such a lovely colour though blue has its moments also. 🙂

  37. haley powell says:

    They both deserve praise and thanks.

  38. dika amelia says:


  39. Nedim Osman says:


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