A really superb film that should be of interest to almost everybody has been running in the HBO rotation recently. It was made (for television) in 2004, and is called Something the Lord Made. It deals with the complex relationship between Dr. Alfred Blalock, who pioneered surgery of the heart at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his lab technician Vivien Thomas, a black man whom Blalock hired as a janitor, but who turned out to be a genius in far more advanced affairs than scrubbing the laboratory floors.
This film is unusual among films about science and its achievements in that it also deals profoundly with the social situation in which these two pioneers worked in the segregated southern states of the pre-war years.
Vivien Thomas was trained as a carpenter, like his father, but he aspired to become a doctor, saved mightily for it, and lost all his savings in the depression of 1929. He took a job with Dr Blalock, a Georgian educated at Johns Hopkins University, who had wound up as a surgeon at Vanderbilt university in Nashville, Tennessee, and was making a name for himself for his work on traumatic shock. Dr. Blalock was intrigued to find his newly-hired janitor had unusually sensitive hands, and had already acquired a knowledge of the instruments that sat around in his lab. So he appointed him as a lab technician, and thus began a partnership that lasted for more than 30 years.
When Blalock was appointed head of surgery at Johns Hopkins University hospital in Baltimore he insisted that Thomas accompany him there, and introduced him as his assistant against the inclinations of the entrenched powers at the university, and against the rules enforced by segregation.
Thomas appears to have been Blalock’s intellectual equal, but Blalock was a somewhat arrogant, obsessed character, not as careful of the feelings of his associate as he could have been. Thomas found out, to his surprise, that he was classified as a low category employee, and was paid extremely poor wages, and when he protested to Blalock, the surgeon read him the riot act. Thomas immediately stripped off his white coat and walked out, forcing the repentant Blalock to run after him in the street and beg with him to return.
The problem of so-called “blue babies” was presented to Blalock, who realized it could only be approached by defying the universally held rule among doctors that the heart must be left alone. No one had ever dared to operate on the heart, but Thomas invented an instrument that made the operation possible, and Blalock carried out the first act of heart surgery ever in 1944.
Lionized by the very profession that had pooh-hooed his intention to operate on a baby’s heart, Blalock was recipient of immense publicity and honours delivered to him at a segregated Baltimore hotel to which Thomas was inadmissible. He was sneaked in, and from a position behind the potted plants he heard Blalock acknowledge the work of a number of doctors who had played a much lesser role in the operation, and ignore the work of Thomas himself.
The retiring, undemonstrative Thomas was not ready to take egregious insults, and there were plenty on offer: he walked out, resigned from Blalock’s team, and tried to make his way on the basis of his ground-breaking work with Blalock. A black university to which he applied told him he would have to start at the bottom as an undergraduate, and when he said that at the age of 35 he didn’t have time for that, he was rejected. He tried to sell pharmaceuticals to doctors, and when that failed he put his pride in his pocket and went back to Blalock. “I made a mistake,” he confessed. “I loved my work, and would like to return.” Blalock said: “But what will be different? I am still the same insensitive asshole I was before.”
Nevertheless they resumed their partnership, until Blalock, who had faced recurring bouts of tuberculosis, resigned, and died, in 1964. Before he died he told Thomas that a life was not fully lived unless it had experienced a lot to regret. But he believed they should remember what they had done, all the lives they saved, “and we saved a lot, didn’t we?”
After Blalock’s death Thomas was employed by the hospital to train surgeons, but the general public did not become aware of his central role in the development of heart surgery until one of the doctors he had trained told a journalist about him. It was her magazine article that brought his life’s work to notice. And eventually the hospital, a year or so before his death, awarded him an honorary doctorate, and the honour of having his picture put on the wall alongside other great pioneers of medical history.
Modestly, accepting the doctorate, Thomas said that when 40 years before, he had accepted the opportunity to work with a young surgeon, he had had no idea he would have been able to make a contribution to medicine that would have merited such recognition.
This film, sensitive in its handling of the explosive issue of race, does not, for all its low-key tone, softpedal or avoid the difficult issues presented by its true story. The film is notable for splendid acting performances by Alan Rickman as Dr Blalock, and by the hip-hop artist Mos Def, who gives a remarkable account of the unemphatic, modest Vivien Thomas.
This is a film of which HBO can be genuinely proud.