I love chancing upon books like Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, and discovering brilliant and courageous people who have made exceptional contributions to society and have been overlooked because of racism, sexism, or ignorance. Uncovering their stories and telling these with eloquence and conviction is an art form, I think, and that is what writer Gwendolyn Hooks and illustrator Colin Bootman have achieved with their book about Vivien Thomas.
Thomas was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, as the son of a master carpenter. His dream was to study medicine, to put his gift for precision and his fascination with science to good use in the service of humankind. Vivien knew that ” with three colleges and a medical school for African Americans, Nashville was the perfect city in which Vivien’s dream could come true.” He saved for college, only to lose it all in the stock market crash of 1929. But, still he persevered, finding a job as a laboratory technician at Vanderbilt University’s medical school, working for Dr. Alfred Blalock and learning to hone his knowledge and skills even as he fought racism (his official title was janitor, and he made far less than the white lab technicians).
Thomas followed Blalock to Johns Hopkins University even though he knew that racial barriers were even more difficult in Baltimore. But his dedication and perseverance pay off when he is able to pioneer a surgical technique to operate on “blue babies” – babies born with a congenital heart defect which did not permit enough oxygen to be delivered to the blood. Thomas’ contributions were not publicly acknowledged for many, many years. He was appointed to lead the Hopkins surgical research laboratory, however, and taught a generation of surgeons and lab technicians.
In the end, as Gwendolyn Hooks writes:
Although he never had the chance to attend medical school, Vivien’s research pioneered open heart surgery on children. Today about forth thousand children are born each year with heart problems. Because of Vivien Thomas, these children now have a chance to live full and healthy lives.
Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas is a wonderful book to share with our students – his story is one worth telling and celebrating.