Vanderbilt hospital road renamed for Black surgery pioneer

Friday, April 2, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 14

NASHVILLE (AP) — A road leading to Vanderbilt University Medical Center is now named for a Black pioneer in cardiac surgery, instead of bearing the Confederacy-tied moniker of Dixie Place.

Officials in Nashville commemorated the name change to Vivien Thomas Way during an event Monday.

In a news release, the hospital said the switch resulted from current second-year Vanderbilt University School of Medicine students brainstorming with college mentors last summer about creating change amid the civil unrest nationwide over the death of George Floyd.

Medical school professor Walter Clair, a mentor and the vice chair for diversity and inclusion in the school's Department of Medicine, suggested the name change. He noted to students that the last stoplight he had to drive through before parking in a garage at work was on Dixie Place.

Nashville's Metro Council approved the name change in December.

"We appreciated the opportunity to remove this daily reminder of the Confederacy and racism from our medical campus," second-year medical student Alex Lupi said in a news release. "We recognized that as students, our time at Vanderbilt may be transient, and we wanted to ensure that the voices of others who have worked at Vanderbilt long before us and may remain long after us were included in making this change."

Thomas landed a Vanderbilt lab assistant job with Dr. Alfred Blalock in 1930 and began the work of a postdoctoral researcher after quickly mastering complex surgical techniques and research.

Blalock became Johns Hopkins Hospital's chief of surgery in 1941 and insisted Thomas accompany him there.

At a time when heart surgeries were considered taboo, Thomas was tasked with creating and correcting a condition in dogs similar to blue baby syndrome, which results from a lack of oxygen in blood and was weakening and killing babies.

Thomas, who had worked on about 200 dogs to show the procedure wasn't lethal, stood on a stepstool behind Blalock in 1944, coaching him while he first performed the surgery on a person.

The procedure was publicized in the May 1945 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, though Thomas wasn't credited for his role in that article or in Blalock's writings.

Thomas, who was born in Louisiana and raised in Nashville, began working in the lab shortly after graduating high school. He wanted to become a doctor, but his life savings were wiped out in the stock market crash.

In the segregated South, Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor at Vanderbilt. At Johns Hopkins, he sometimes worked as a bartender, including at Blalock's parties, where he served drinks to some people he had been teaching. With Blalock's advocacy, Thomas became the highest paid technician at Johns Hopkins by 1946.

"That he became a pioneer of cardiac surgery — even with no formal medical degree and despite the constant obstacle of racism — demonstrates an ingenuity, perseverance and excellence that is rarely seen," second-year medical student Kayvon Sharif said in the release.

Thomas died in 1985 at age 75.