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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 17, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 35
Story of Legendary Johns Hopkins Team to Be Told by HBO

Heart surgeon Alfred Blalock.

By Greg Rienzi

This week, a piece of history made and filmed at Johns Hopkins hits the big screen at one of Baltimore's most distinguished venues.

Johns Hopkins Medicine will co-host the Baltimore area premiere of HBO Films' Something The Lord Made, an adaptation of the landmark development of the "blue baby" operation that launched a golden age of heart surgery. The film will be shown at an invitational screening on Tuesday, May 18, at the Senator Theatre.

The movie makes its television debut at 9 p.m. on May 30 on HBO. (For additional play dates, see box.)

Something the Lord Made is the story of two men — an ambitious white surgeon, Alfred Blalock, and a gifted black carpenter turned lab technician, Vivien Thomas — who at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1944 defied racial barriers and together helped pioneer a medical field.

Directed by multiple Emmy winner Joseph Sargent, the film stars Alan Rickman (Blalock), Mos Def (Thomas) and Mary Stuart Masterson (Helen Taussing, Blalock's colleague/collaborator), along with Kyra Sedgwick, Gabrielle Union and Charles S. Dutton.

Vivien Thomas, carpenter turned technician

Premieres also will be held in New York City and Los Angeles. On hand with cast members at the Baltimore premiere will be several of the doctors who worked with Blalock, Thomas and Taussig and who still are associated with Hopkins.

J. Alex Haller, professor emeritus of pediatric surgery at the School of Medicine, trained under Blalock and Thomas in the 1950s and was a primary consultant on the film. Haller, who attended a private screening, said that the movie contains several powerful moments of discovery and collaboration.

"This is a story of two very talented individuals from different backgrounds, during the period of segregation, who worked as partners on such a remarkable achievement, an approach to the management of blue babies," Haller said. "A touching moment for me came when they operated on the first blue baby. As they operated and new blood began to flow into the infant's heart, they took off the sheets and you saw the child's color change from blue to pink, and then someone made the statement, 'It's a miracle.' This film documents the development of the first operative procedure on a congenital heart abnormality. It opened the door to heart surgery for the next 50 years."

The bulk of the movie was filmed in Baltimore, at and around Johns Hopkins University, on both the East Baltimore and Homewood campuses.

"We were very fortunate that Baltimore still has the look of the time period, so we were able to use locations that really capture the time and place extremely well," said the film's executive producer, Robert Cort. "And Johns Hopkins was remarkably helpful during the process. There's a scene at the end of the film where Vivien Thomas is given an honorary doctorate in a wonderful, wood-paneled lecture hall. The location where the scene was shot [Hurd Hall] is the exact same place in which he received his honor in real life. The genuineness of being able to work at Hopkins was a tremendous help to both our director, Joe Sargent, and, of course, to our actors in creating a real sense of history."

Born in Culloden, Ga., Alfred Blalock received his medical degree in 1922 from the School of Medicine. After his internship and residency at Johns Hopkins, Blalock joined the faculty of the Vanderbilt Medical School, where he made important advances in the study of shock trauma. In 1941, he returned to Johns Hopkins as professor and director of surgery at the School of Medicine and surgeon in chief of the hospital, positions he held until his retirement in 1964. He died that same year.

Thomas, denied a chance to become a doctor by the Depression, proved that intelligence, persistence and ability transcend artificially imposed barriers. A carpenter, he largely taught himself the skills that led him to become Blalock's right-hand person. In 1976, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins. Upon his retirement in 1979, he became instructor emeritus of surgery. He died in 1985.

Together, Blalock and Thomas, inspired by the work of Hopkins pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig, developed the "blue baby" operation on infants suffering from a congenital heart defect that slowly suffocates them, turning them blue. The operation, which surgically corrected a defect known as the Tetralogy of Fallot, broke the last barrier to operating directly on the heart, long considered taboo and an impossibility. In the process, the team pioneered stitching techniques and procedures such as the use of a shunt to keep blood flowing to the heart during surgery.

The film's title refers to a quote attributed to Blalock, who upon seeing Thomas' deft suturing work during a trial shunt procedure on a dog, said, "Are you sure you did this, Vivien? This looks like something the Lord made."

Levi Watkins, a professor of cardiac surgery at the School of Medicine, who attended a recent screening of the film and knew Thomas, said that the film recounts a vital piece of medical, social and Johns Hopkins history.

"It shows probably one of the most incredible operations ever developed at Johns Hopkins, one that forever changed the world inside and out — a moment of pure science and discovery," Watkins said. "Perhaps even more important, the film shows what two people, black and white, can do working together to transcend racial barriers."

Watkins, who met and befriended Thomas in the early 1970s, said that he regarded Thomas as a mentor and that, following his death, he has sought every opportunity to spread the word on his accomplishments in the field of heart surgery.

"It is nice to see that finally, after all these years, his story is being told," Watkins said. "He is perhaps one of the most untalked about, unappreciated giants in the African-American community. He contributed to the birth of heart surgery, proving you could do it in children, and all this happened at Johns Hopkins. I think this is a tremendous thing, and, knowing Vivien personally, seeing this recognition is what really lifts me up."

For more on the film and the history of heart surgery, go to


When to See It

Something the Lord Made debuts at 9 p.m. on May 30 on HBO.

Other HBO play dates are June 2 (noon, 8 p.m.), June 5 (1:30 p.m., 9:45 p.m.), June 8 (4:30 p.m., midnight), June 14 (2:30 p.m., 11:35 p.m.), June 17 (8:30 a.m.) and June 20 (9 a.m., 6 p.m.).

HBO2 play dates are May 31 (8 p.m.), June 24 (9 a.m., 11:35 p.m.), June 26 (11 a.m.) and June 29 (2:30 p.m.).


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