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About this Exhibit

About this Exhibit

The current exhibit celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Blue Baby Operation is the outgrowth of an earlier one produced by the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives in 1995 to document the 50th anniversary of the first operation. Of particular significance is that former associates of Helen Taussig, Alfred Blalock, and Vivien Thomas contributed to the development of that exhibit which laid a strong foundation for us to follow. Since then archives staff have located and preserved new source materials relating to the history of cardiology, cardiac surgery, catheterization, and anesthesiology. More photographic documentation, oral histories, films, and examples of medical and surgical instruments have greatly enriched archival holdings. Drawing from this augmented content we have been able to produce a broader and more robust exhibit on the overall team that developed and carried out the first procedures to correct the congenital anomalies of Tetralogy of Fallot.

From the initial publication in 1985 of Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery by Vivien Thomas[1], and through the wave of publications and films that followed, archives staff have assisted countless patrons in their search for materials to illuminate the contributions of Vivien Thomas as well as Alfred Blalock, Helen Taussig, and others at Johns Hopkins who were involved in these groundbreaking cardiac procedures. While many of these archival patrons have focused on the role that Vivien Thomas played in developing the surgical procedure for Tetralogy of Fallot, others have explored the role of cardiology and follow-up care of  the first surgical patients; procedures for anesthesia  and cardiac catheterization.

The 1989 article, “Like Something the Lord Made”, in Washingtonian magazine generated widespread interest in the contributions of Vivien Thomas and the challenges he faced as an African American[2]. This article along with the book published by Thomas inspired the interest of filmmakers. In 2002 Spark Media released the widely acclaimed documentary Partners of the Heart[3] which was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and broadcast on public television networks. In 2004, HBO released Something the Lord Made staring Mos Def as Vivien Thomas and Alan Rickman as Alfred Blalock.[4] Archives staff assisted Spark Media and HBO in research for their scripts and the retrieval of materials from collections that were used in filming.

These two films plus the article by Stefan Timmermans[5] have spawned further interest in the figures who were involved in the first Blue Baby surgeries, their research and innovations, social dynamics, and turf issues associated with their areas of specialization. Staff have assisted undergraduate and graduate students, interns, residents, and faculty from Johns Hopkins and other institutions in their research for essays, theses, and journal articles, and books. A new category of patrons visiting the archives includes secondary school students from grades 6-12 who are participating in National History Day projects.[6] Archives staff assisting these students are helping them learn how to conduct historical research and develop presentation on their findings. The most frequent topics are the lives and contributions of Helen Taussig and Vivien Thomas.

As staff have assisted patrons in their research, they have uncovered more relevant documentation and transferred it to the Chesney Archives. Moreover the publicity surrounding the films and books has led to an increase in the donation of new collections and items relating to the history of cardiology, cardiac surgery, cardiac catheterization, and anesthesia. Faculty and staff with critical expertise have guided the Chesney Archives throughout the acquisition and appraisal of new materials and have contributed to the restoration and preservation of significant materials. We are especially grateful to the departments of medicine and cardiac surgery for supporting the processing of relevant collections.

Special gratitude goes to Dr. Mario Molina who negotiated the donation of the Richard Bing Collection to the Chesney Archives and funded its transfer from California. In addition Dr. Molina has provided a major gift which has funded the curation of this exhibit as well as the digitization of collections that are featured. We especially appreciate his enthusiasm for the value of archives and commitment to documenting the history of medicine, nursing, and public health.

Dr. Alicia Puglionesi has produced the script for the exhibit in collaboration with archives staff. Many thanks go to Marjorie Kehoe, Natalie Elder, Dr. Linda Klouzal, and Timothy Wisniewski who have provided invaluable contributions toward development of the exhibit. Moreover, we are especially grateful to Dr. William Baumgartner who has shared his time and expertise to edit the script.


Please contact if you are interested in conducting research at the Chesney Archives. The registration form for access is as follows:


[1] Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery. Vivien Thomas and His Work with Alfred Blalock Vivien T. Thomas Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985 245 pp, illustrated. Later retitled as Something the Lord Made

[2] “Like Something the Lord Made”, Katie McCabe Washingtonian Magazine, August 1989

[3] Partners of the Heart, Spark Media 2002 2015 NEH selected this documentary as one of 50 projects that “changes the landscape of the humanities, and collectively…represent the best work the NEH has funded over the last 50 years.”

[4] This highly popular film has received numerous awards including an Emmy (2004), Peabody Award (2005), and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special (2005).

[5] Sociologist and historian Stefan Timmermans’ article, "A Black Technician and Blue Babies" explores the institutional and racial inequities that beset Vivien Thomas. (Social Studies of Science 33:2 (April 2003, 197–229).

[6] National History Day is a non-profit education organization that is designed to engage students and teachers in historical research and skills development.