Within three weeks, I read two books that highlighted the achievements of Vivien Thomas, the African American would-be doctor who led the charge to cure “blue babies”: babies that weren’t getting the oxygenated blood they needed. One delivered the content via a picture book format that would work well to be incorporated into a STEM lesson while the second was a shorter narrative nonfiction text that not only focused on Thomas, but Drs. Blalock and Taussig.
In Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, she focuses on the triumph of Thomas’ work in the face of adversity. The book angered me as much as inspired me because of the obstacles put before Thomas, yet his drive for success pushed him to help when it was unlikely he’d be recognized or accepted. And that was the case for many years.
And it wasn’t until I read Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy which came out in 2015, that I understood a fuller picture, since Tiny Stitches literally focuses on the man, Breakthrough! focuses on three people. Thomas included, and more about the experiments and elbow grease that exists when perfecting medical procedures, especially when the instruments to perform them didn’t exist.
I love to learn, which is why narrative nonfiction has be so enamored over the last five years, and while both gave me a portrait of Thomas, I am humbled to know that medicine will never be the same without his contributions. The long hours, the intelligence, the dedication in the face of discrimination will leave anyone wondering about all of the others that we never hear about (alas, a post for another day– the great nonfiction being published about those that we need to know more about). I advise librarians to be sure you have a copy of both accessible texts for your shelves and science teachers to read them aloud and use chapters in the study of advancements in medicine.