Alfred Blalock was a well-known American surgeon in the 20th century is most noted for his research concerning shock as well as for the development of the surgical procedure “the Blalock-Taussig Shunt”. This surgical procedure, which is still used today, was developed to relieve the lack of oxygenated blood caused by Tetralogy of Fallot- a congenital heart defect, more commonly known as “blue baby syndrome.” This heralded the beginning of 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, a merchant and owner of a cotton plantation, and Martha (Davis) Blalock. He was the eldest of five children and he had a love for sports and the great outdoors, which he kept throughout his life. He was born and raised in Culloden, Georgia and worked hard at school. When he was 14, he entered the Georgia Military Academy of Milledgeville which was the preparatory school for the University of Georgia. In 1915, he attended the University of Georgia in Athens as a sophomore, skipping his freshman year. At University, he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, their Delta Chapter.
Blalock was only 19 when he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1918 and he was accepted to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. During his medical degree, Blackrock enrolled on the surgical course and realized that this was where his career lay. He excelled in surgery and tried to get a surgical residency after obtaining his medical degree in 1922 but, due to his average overall grades, he had to content himself with a urology internship. The following year he earned an Assistant Residency on the General Surgical Service. This was then followed by an externship in otolaryngology in 1924.
In the summer of 1925, Blalock moved to Boston to continue surgical training at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Within days however, he had accepted a position of resident surgeon in the then newly built Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville. There, he was able to work with his good friend Dr. Tinsley Harrison, who had been his roommate back at medical school in Baltimore.
Career at Vanderbilt University
At Vanderbilt University, Blalock worked with Barney Brooks, the Professor of Surgery and Chief of the Surgical Service.
In 1927 Blalock suffered from tuberculosis and spent almost two years recovering in a sanatorium near Saranac Lake. Blalock then made a small tour of Europe and in 1928 and he also worked in the Department of Physiology, in Cambridge, England. Later the same year Blalock returned to Vanderbilt.
While he was in Vanderbilt, Blalock had an active time teaching 3rd and 4th year medical students and he was placed in charge of the surgical laboratory.
in Vanderbilt, Blalock became acquainted with Vivien Thomas who was the school’s janitor. In 1930 Blalock hired Thomas to assist him in the laboratory and this proved to be a very fruitful partnership. Blalock saw how meticulous and talented Thomas was and he made him his very own surgical technician. Under Blalock’s guidance, he learned about surgical procedures and equipment and this led Thomas to design his own instruments.
Blalock’s laboratory experiments established that surgical shock resulted from the loss of blood and / or body fluids. He proposed a treatment using plasma and blood transfusions. This treatment was later used to care for men who were wounded in the Second World War. Blalock’s discovery saved thousands of lives.
Blalock and Thomas began experiments in vascular and cardiac surgery, using innovative techniques and Blalock was made a full professor in 1938.
Career at Johns Hopkins
In 1941, Blalock became Professor of Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University and Surgeon in Chief of the John Hopkins Hospital. He stayed at John Hopkins for the rest of his career. A position was also created for his assistant, Vivien Thomas. They were, by now, a “package deal” as both professional colleagues and as good friends.
Blalock was now interested in cardiac surgery. He operated on dogs to perfect an operation where the subclavian artery had to be anastomosed to the pulmonary artery. This procedure was used as a means of bypassing a narrowing (coarctation) of the aorta. Blalock’s new surgery technique (the shunt technique) was performed in collaboration with pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig. Taussig recognized that this new technique could be useful for infants with Tetralogy of Fallot also known as “blue baby syndrome”. She helped translate their medical work into an actual procedure which could be applied to young children.
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 due to a congenital heart defect. This lack of oxygenated blood turns the newborn’s skin blue. The very first Blalock-Taussig surgical operation was performed on the 29th of November in 1944. It was performed on a 15-month baby girl named Eileen. Simply put, an artery which was leaving the heart was attached to an artery connected to the lungs. This gave the blood the added oxygenation it needed.
The surgical procedure was a success and immediately the baby girl began to change to her normal color once the oxygen began flowing to her arteries. Unfortunately, the infant later died but the operation had worked. Word about the operation spread very quickly and mothers with children that had this condition began bringing them to Hopkins Hospital to have this procedure performed.
Blalock also excelled in teaching and during his years as surgeon in chief at Johns Hopkins he trained 38 chief residents.
Personal Life and Later Years
Blalock was married to Mary Chambers O’Bryan and they had three children. His wife died in 1958, and he then married Alice Waters in 1959. In 1949, Blalock was awarded the René Leriche Prize of the International Society of Surgery as the world’s outstanding surgeon in vascular (heart) surgery. In 1955, The Alfred Blalock Clinical Sciences Building at Hopkins Hospital was named after him. Alfred Blalock retired in July 1964 and just two months later, he died of cancer on September 15 at the age of 65.