Alfred Blalock

 

Alfred Blalock was a well-known American surgeon in the 20th century most noted for his research concerning shock as well as for the development of the surgical procedure called the Blalock-Taussig Shunt which he developed hand in hand with Vivien Thomas, a surgical technician, and Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist. This surgical procedure which is still used today was developed to relieve cyanosis which resulted from Tetralogy of Fallot which is more commonly known as the “blue baby syndrome.” This surgical procedure that he developed has made its way even to the modern procedures for cardiac surgery.

Early Life and Educational Background

Alfred Blalock was born on the 5th of April in 1899 to his parents George Blalock and Martha Davis Blalock. He had two siblings, Elizabeth, and Edgar. He was born and raised in Culloden Georgia and when he was 14, he entered the Georgia Military Academy which was the preparatory school to attend for the University of Georgia. Later on, he attended the University of Georgia as one of its undergraduate students and during his time there, he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, their Delta Chapter.

He was only 19 when he graduated with his A.B. and after that, he then attended the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He then had his M.D. in 1922 and for the next two and a half years, he spent it at John Hopkins and during that time he completed his internship in urology. He didn’t stop at that because he then earned his Assistant Residency on the General Surgical Service which was then followed by having a Fellowship in Otolaryngology.

He did not stop at improving himself through education and experience. In the summer of 1925, he transferred to Boston where he began his residency which he had at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Not long after though, he was able to accept a position offered to him to be the resident surgeon in the then newly built Vanderbilt University Hospital located in Nashville. There, he was able to work with his good friend Tinsley Harrison who was his roommate back in Hopkins. Harrison was the first Chief Resident on the Medical Service of Vanderbilt that time. Blalock arrived in Nashville on the 17th of September where he also worked with Barney Brooks, the Professor of Surgery as well as the Chief of the Surgical Service.

Career and Further Experience

While he was in Vanderbilt, he became acquainted with Vivien Thomas who was the school’s janitor. Despite being a black man who was excluded from having normal jobs back in the day, Blalock saw how meticulous and talented Thomas was and he made him his very own surgical technician—quite an unusual set up, since Thomas’s job description still remained as a janitor. Under Blalock’s guidance though, he learned more about surgical procedures and equipment which led him to design some of his very own.

Also while he was in Vanderbilt, Blalock had an active time in teaching 3rd and 4th year students taking medical courses and was also placed in charge of the place’s surgical laboratory. His laboratory experiments while in Vanderbilt proved how surgical shock resulted from the loss of effective circulating volume of blood. From there he formed his basis for using plasma and blood for the care of men who were wounded in The Second World War.

Because of his discovery which was what saved thousands of lives in The Second World War, Hopkins offered him a position in 1941. In turn, Blalock responded that he was not going to leave his current position which he had at Vanderbilt unless a position would also be created for Vivien Thomas. They were to be considered as a “packaged deal” as both professional colleagues and really good friends.

Apart from his interest in after shock therapy, he was also highly interested in pulmonary hypertension. He used dogs while he was devising the operation where the subclavian artery had to be anastomosed to the dog’s pulmonary artery. This work was done in collaboration with a pediatric cardiologist named Helen Taussig who helped them translate their medical work to become an actual procedure which can be applied even for the tiniest of patients—babies. Although this procedure failed to produce pulmonary hypertion which was why it was tried in the first place, the same surgical procedure was the one later on used and known as the solution for the Tetralogy of Fallot or the blue baby syndrome.

Tetralogy of Fallot is a congenital heart condition where the baby tends to show blue skin. This is caused by not having enough oxygenated blood because of a congenital heart defect, and this lack of oxygenated blood is what turns the newborn’s skin blue. The very first Blalock-Taussig surgical operation was performed on the 29th of November in 1944. This was done on a 15-month baby girl named Eileen, and Blalock did not begin the operation until his good friend Thomas was present too. Once Thomas was there, the instruments he designed were used, and his valuable opinion was always taken into consideration by Blalock. An artery which was leaving the heart was attached to an artery connected to the lungs. This was what gave the blood the added oxygenation it needs.

The surgical procedure done that day was a complete success which immediately showed when the girl began to change to her normal color once the oxygen began flowing to her arteries. Word about the successful operation spread very quickly and mothers with babies that had this condition began bringing their babies to Hopkins to have this procedure done to their children.

Later Years

Blalock was the man who was able to come up with the first open heart surgery and because of this, Hopkins became the center for cardiac surgery concerns. He was married to Mary Chambers O’Bryan with whom he had three children with. His wife died earlier though, and he remarried with Alice Waters. Alfred Blalock left a legacy of having developed this breakthrough surgical procedure, and he died on September 15, 1964 at the age of 65.