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A Daring First

On November 29, 1944, a frail baby lay on an operating table at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. The 15-month-old had a congenital heart malformation called Tetralogy of Fallot, which robs the blood of oxygen. Sufferers were called “blue babies” because oxygen-deprivation caused cyanosis, a bluish tint to their skin. Half would die before the age of three.

Blue baby surgery portrait orientation

An overhead view of closed-circuit-televised blue baby surgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1947. Photograph by Sy Friedman.

Major surgery on the heart had only begun in the 1920s, and even its pioneers saw Tetralogy of Fallot as untreatable. The idea for a surgical remedy came from Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist at Hopkins. She brought her concept to surgeon Alfred Blalock; Vivien Thomas, the head technician in Blalock’s laboratory, developed and perfected the procedure on dogs. All three gathered in the operating room on that decisive day, to attempt something never done before.

“I remember when Dr. Blalock took the clamp off that subclavian artery… and the blood began to flow back into the pulmonary artery," Denton Cooley recalled. "[We] watched the baby turn from blue to pink.”