DR. HELEN TAUSSIG: "HEíS A LOVELY COLOR NOW!"
by Stan Griffin, Deaf Friends International Special Contributor


Because of her work with pediatric cardiology and her innovative research on the "blue baby" syndrome, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig was part of the "key step in the development of open-heart surgery in the 1950s." She also helped avoid a crisis in the United States when she testified about the terrible effects the drug thalidomide had on pregnant European women in the 1960s.

Dr. Taussig received many honors and awards throughout her medical career. Some of them were the: French Chevalier díHonneur, Italian Feltrinelli Prize, Peruvian Presidential Medal of Honor, Albert Lasker Award for outstanding contributions to medicine, Elizabeth Blackwell Award (given to women whose lives exemplify outstanding service to humanity), and the United States Medal of Freedom (presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964).

In addition, Dr. Taussig was one of the first women to get a full professorship at Johns Hopkins, the first woman to receive Johns Hopkins School of Medicineís highest honor, and the first woman to become president of the American Heart Association.

Her accomplishments become more impressive when you consider that by 1927, when she graduated from Johns Hopkins, most of her hearing was gone. It had begun to fail after a childhood case of whooping cough.

Dr. Taussig was born on May 24, 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, youngest of four children. Her father was Frank W. Taussig, a Harvard University professor and advisor to President Woodrow Wilson. Her mother was Edith Guild Taussig, natural scientist, who died of tuberculosis when Helen was only 11 years old.

Taussig was a frail child and missed quite a bit of school. Her hearing began to deteriorate after a bout with whooping cough. She also had dyslexia (extreme difficulty in reading or understanding written words), but she managed to overcome it and excelled in her higher education.

She graduated from the Cambridge School for Girls in 1917 and then became a champion tennis player during her two years of study at Radcliffe, the womenís college connected to Harvard.

Taussig graduated with a B. A. from the University of California at Berkeley (1921). She then attempted to enroll at Harvard; but not until 1945, did they admit women. So she entered Harvardís School of Public Health and got special permission to take courses at Harvardís Medical School and at Boston University.

While studying at B. U., an anatomy professor suggested she specialize in cardiac research and apply to Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore, Maryland, one of the few American medical schools that accepted women. Helen followed his advice, and she graduated from that institution in 1927. By that time, she had lost all hearing.

In spite of this problem, Dr. Taussig decided to go into practice, and she chose pediatric cardiology as her specialty. She learned to read lips and to "listen with her fingers" to patientsí hearts. It is thought that some of her innovative techniques could be ascribed to her ability to distinguish rhythms of normal and damaged hearts by TOUCH rather than by sound. "This fine-tuned sensitivity, combined with her acute powers of observation, led her to one of the most important discoveries in cardiac care in the twentieth century ..."

Taussig had a two-year internship, working in the Johns Hopkins Hospital Childrenís Heart Clinic (the Helen Lane Home). In 1930 she was appointed physician-in-charge there, continuing in that position until her retirement.

Dr. Taussig began to study the cardiac manifestations of disease, and soon she became interested in congenital heart trouble. She classified and described many of the cardiac malfunctions responsible for the plight of "blue babies," infants whose color at birth indicated inadequate oxygenation of their blood.

Eventually she realized the major physiological problem lay in lack of blood flow to the lungs.

Dr. Alfred Blalock came to Johns Hopkins in 1941. Taussig suggested to him that the construction of a "patent ductus" (open tube) might provide an answer to the anoxia (abnormal decline in the bloodís oxygen content) of children with "Tetralogy of Fallot" (or "blue baby syndrome") Such a dropoff was caused by an inborn heart defect depriving the blood of enough oxygen.

The two of them, along with Vivien Thomas (surgical technician), developed an idea for an operation to help children with this condition. After much work and experimentation in the laboratory, the "Blalock-Taussig procedure" was ready for a trial. It was performed for the first time on November 9, 1944 on a very ill, high-risk patient with anoxemia (abnormal decline in oxygen content of the blood) who was deeply blue in color and could hardly eat without gasping for air.

After completion of the operation, the patientís condition was improved.. Unfortunately, he died several months later after a second operation. Two additional surgeries and the resulting physical changes brought about by the procedure proved it was a viable way to save livesĖand in years afterwards, it did help tens of thousands of children.

Taussig and Blalock published a joint paper in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" describing results of their work. This had an immediate worldwide impact. Both doctors made many clinical presentations and case demonstrations in this country and also in Europe. Their success attracted many patients to Johns Hopkins and also brought physicians from all over the world to learn the procedureís techniques.

Dr. Taussig continued her research on cardiac birth defects, and she published an important work, "Congenital Malformations of the Heart," in 1947. She was appointed professor of pediatrics in 1959, and she retired from Johns Hopkins in 1963.

In the late 1970s, Dr. Taussig moved to Pennsylvania. She was killed in an automobile accident at Kennett Square on May 21, 1986, three days before her 88th birthday.

Dr. Taussigís name lives on in the "Helen B. Taussig Childrenís Pediatric Cardiac Center" at Johns Hopkins in memory of the woman who solved the mystery of the "blue babies."

Deaf Friends International Main Page

Deaf Biographies Index