Vivien Thomas’ correspondence is an important and fascinating historical record of letters exchanged between Thomas and a number of Hopkins medical staff from 1953 up to his death in 1985. Though often warm in tone, most of these letters are professional in nature, limiting their concerns to that of the hospital and the occupational lives of colleagues. In some cases there is a development of intimacy as the correspondence proceeds. We can see an example of this in the stark difference between Ravitch’s first letter to Thomas in 1953 and to his last letters to Thomas in 1985, as professional practicalities give way to genuine personal attachment. For correspondence regarding the portrait and honorary degree, please turn to Personal and Biographical Series.
Because of his sustained mentorship over Thomas’ autobiography, Mark Ravitch is the most prolific correspondent in the collection. In the period 1979 – 1985, drafts of the autobiography are passed between Thomas and Ravitch, with Ravitch providing commentary by letter and encouraging Thomas towards completion.
It is in the correspondence that we learn of the editorial process of the manuscript. Ravitch is not an overbearing editor, and beyond grammatical issues, he suggests minimal changes to the manuscript. However, Ravitch does intervene in encouraging Thomas to expound in greater detail some of the surgical procedures he was involved in, which results in long passages of very technical vocabulary sometimes more suited to a textbook than a memoir. For a while this actually hinders the publication of the book, as it is feared by publishers to be overly obscure to a non-medical audience.
An important omission from the manuscript is something Thomas was personally very interested in, which we can tell from his significant collections of articles and clippings on this topic (see 5 series Subject Files). Alcoholism in the medical profession quite seriously impacted the lives of a number of doctors at Hopkins, particularly Blalock and Thomas, yet makes only a fleeting appearance at the beginning of the memoir. It is in the correspondence between Thomas and Ravitch that we find a striking account of Blalock’s alcohol dependency, particularly as it worsens late in his life.
The collection also features correspondence exchanged after Thomas’ death, principally between Clara Thomas and various medical staff at Hopkins. An item of note is Helen Taussig’s card to Clara Thomas upon her husband’s death in which she expresses her high regard and deep fondness for him. There is also further correspondence between Ravitch and University of Pennsylvania Press, mostly on administrative topics.
Each correspondence sub-series is arranged alphabetically by correspondent. Within alphabetized correspondents, the material is organized chronologically. The letters between Vivien Thomas and Mark Ravitch are about half of the correspondence and are arranged chronologically in a separate sub-series. The second subseries is Thomas correspondence with other people excluding Ravitch. Since she communicated so extensively with a broad range of people after Thomas’ death, Clara Thomas’ correspondence has its own subseries; the same goes for Mark Ravitch’s letters to people other than Vivien Thomas.