“Back in ’29 when I had TB, the X-rays showed a big, gaping hole in my left lung. I lay there on a freezing porch in a Sanatorium in upstate New York with eighteen blankets on me. Nothing but my nose exposed to the elements… I swore then that if I got my life back I would do something important with it.” – Dr Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), Something the Lord Made (2004)
I enjoy reading Alternate History. What is Alternate History? It’s not Science Fiction, it isn’t History, and good Alternate History isn’t always a time travel story. Alternate History takes a historical event – the more familiar the better – changes one fact, and then tells the story of what might have happened.
So let’s do our own Alternative History thinking. Alfred Blalock, a promising young researcher working at Vanderbilt University, really did contract Tuberculosis (also known as TB) and spent time in a Sanatorium. If we changed one fact – if Alfred Blalock had died from TB – would history change?
I think it would, and not for the better.
In real life, Vivien Thomas began to work for Blalock in February of 1930. Had Blalock died, the two never would have met. Forget their contributions at Johns Hopkins, while at Vanderbilt the pair were able to learn how and why the human body went into shock. Since they never worked together, there would have been more injured soldiers who died during World War II. Perhaps one could have been your father or grandfather? (Which raises the question: Would you even be here?)
Thomas was a skilled carpenter; he probably would have made a nice living building things in Nashville. But he would never repair a heart.
Helen Taussig‘s career would have been much different, too. The theory behind the Blalock-Taussig shunt was in her mind before she met Alfred Blalock. But she had already asked the surgeons at Johns Hopkins about performing the surgery, and had been turned down. Taussig then took a train to Boston and tried to convince Dr. Robert Gross to do the operation. Gross was the leading Heart Surgeon of the time, but he turned her down, too. Taussig would have returned to Baltimore and continued as the head of Pediatric Cardiology for the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Frustrated, she’d keep trying to understand broken hearts… but as long as there was no surgeon willing to listen to her, she’d never make much progress. And if she did find some one willing to risk a surgical procedure, it would never be named the Blalock-Taussig Shunt.
Assuming the operation was successful – Vivien Thomas did the majority of the research needed to design and execute the operation, but in our Alternate History he never worked with Blalock, never moved to Baltimore, and never met Helen Taussig. Without him standing on that milk crate talking Blalock through the operation, the chances of failure were much higher. The debacle of a failed heart operation could easily cost the unknown surgeon and Helen Taussig their jobs.
It would be a very different world for the very few CHDers who made it.