The first Congenital Heart Surgery occurred on November 29, 1944 in Room 706 of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, the facility for children at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Located in the East Wing of the 4th floor, most of Hopkins’ early heart operations took place there. While there had been heart surgeries before this (Dr. Robert Gross had been repairing PDAs since 1938) this with the first surgical procedure specifically designed to relieve the effects of a Congenital Heart Defect. The operation was later named the Blalock-Taussig Shunt and is still in use today.
Here is a photo of Room 706 taken February 3, 1945 during the second Blalock-Taussig Shunt. (You can click on this photo and enlarge it) Blalock and his team are hard at work and most of the people who participated in that first operation are in this photograph. Ever wonder who they are, and what happened to them?
The first patient, Eileen Saxon, survived but again became Cyanotic a few months later. A second operation – once again the Blalock-Taussig Shunt, but on the opposite side of the body this time – was performed but Eileen died just a few days before her third birthday. In fact, fourteen of the first seventy patients to undergo the Blalock-Taussig Shunt died as the operating team learned the proper techniques needed for Cardiac Surgery.
Alfred Blalock (Surgeon, leaning over patient): Already head of the Hopkins Surgical Department and a Professor of Surgery, Blalock held those positions until he retired in 1964. He died a few months later.
Vivien Thomas (behind Blalock, face partially obscured by operating room spotlight): Thomas continued in his job as Surgical laboratory Assistant to Dr. Blalock and was later named Director of Surgical Research Laboratories. In 1976 he received an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins. Thomas retired in 1979 and died in 1985.
Olive Berger (Nurse Anesthetist, standing at head of table): Miss Berger is in this photograph but did not participate in the November 29 operation. Anesthesiologist Merel Harmel been on duty that day, and either Harmel or Berger usually worked with Blalock. Miss Berger died in 1981 and her notebooks, currently in the Hopkins Archives, are considered important historical records of the first heart operations.
Denton Cooley (Across Operating Room table from Blalock): Just an intern at the time, Cooley would go on to form the Texas Heart Institute in 1962 and is considered one of the best heart surgeons in the world.
William Longmire (to Blalock’s left): After medical school, Longmire had left the residency program to run his father’s medical practice until the older Longmire recovered. Returning to Hopkins, he was granted a temporary residency and assisted during the first Blalock-Taussig shunt. Feeling he had earned his way back into a regular surgical residency program but having almost nowhere to put him, Dr. Blalock made him the Chief of Plastic Surgery. Longmire left Hopkins in 1948 to become Chairman of Surgery at UCLA. He continued as Chairman of Surgery until 1976 and passed away in 2003.
Helen Taussig (Not identifiable but most likely in room): Already head of the Cardiac Division of the Harriet Lane Home, the operation would also bring her to prominence. Her 1947 book Congenital Malformations of the Heart (along with a second volume dealing with specific Heart Defects) were the first modern textbooks outlining the diagnosis and treatment of Congenital Heart Defects. Considered the mother of Pediatric Cardiology, Taussig would retire in 1963 but never ceased researching. In addition to her work with young Cardiac Kids, she was instrumental in preventing the use of Thalidomide in pregnant women in the United States. Taussig died in an automobile collision in 1986. The two women at the foot of the table are not Taussig; neither is the woman standing to Denton Cooley’s right. Taussig wore glasses, none of these three women wear them.
Room 706 itself: The Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children closed in 1972 as the pediatric hospital moved into a more modern building. The old building was torn down in 1974.