Helen B. Taussig, M.D.

Pediatric Cardiologist
1898 - 1986

 

Portrait of Helen B. Taussig
by Yousuf Karsh, ©Karsh

In 1930, Helen B. Taussig was appointed by Edwards A. Park, professor of pediatrics, to head his cardiac clinic.

Taussig soon began to study the cardiac manifestations of disease, and then her interest turned to congenital heart disease. Eventually she came to the realization that the major physiological problem in tetralogy of Fallot (the blue-baby syndrome) was lack of blood flow to the lung.

 


Taussig examining a blue-baby.
Photograph by permisssion Hearst Newspapers.

Although opinions vary as to the origins of the operation, Taussig remembered listening to a conversation in 1943 between Alfred Blalock and Edwards A. Park. The discussion had to do with the difficulty associated with cross-clamping the descending aorta to repair a coarctation. Park inquired,

Could you not use the carotid artery as a bypass? It is a long, straight artery and there are four vessels to the brain. Wouldn't it be possible to turn the carotid artery down and anastomose it to the aorta below the coarctation?

Taussig spoke up,

If you could put the carotid artery into the descending aorta, couldn't you put the subclavian artery into the pulmonary artery?

Regardless of the variance in the stories recounting the origination of the procedure; it is clear Blalock together with Vivien Thomas, continued to move forward with the problem of providing oxygen to the pulmonary artery. The shunt first tried at Vanderbilt ultimately provided the answer. The operation was first performed on a very ill, high-risk patient in 1944. Although the frail child died months later in a second operation, the child survived long enough to demonstrate the survival of a surgical procedure that would save the lives of tens of thousands of children.

Hands of Helen Taussig examining an infant.
Photograph by permission of Tadder Associates.

In 1945, Helen Taussig and Alfred Blalock published a joint paper on the first three operations in the Journal of the American Medical Association; this publication had an immediate worldwide impact.


The American Weekly, February 17, 1946

Taussig and Blalock made numerous clinical presentations and case demonstrations in both Europe and the United States. The success of the procedure attracted many patients to Johns Hopkins for treatment, and it also brought many physicians to learn the techniques of the procedure.

Helen Taussig with a small patient in 1981.
Photograph by permission of Tadder Associates.

Taussig received international recognition and honors for her contributions to medicine, including the French Chevalier Legion d'Honneur, the Italian Feltrinelli Prize, the Peruvian Presidential Medal of Honor, and here at home, the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, and the United States of America Medal of Freedom.

The U.S.A. Medal of Freedom awarded to Helen Taussig in 1964.


Continue with Exhibit

Introduction
The Operation
Surgeon - Alfred Blalock
Pediatric Cardiologist - Helen B. Taussig
Surgical Technician - Vivien T. Thomas

Frequently Asked Questions
Sources for this Exhibit

 

The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions