Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medial Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman
From the age of 13, Vivien Thomas worked with his master carpenter father and began growing a bank account that might someday take him to college and eventually medical school. The stock market crash of 1928 wiped out Thomas’ savings, but nothing could touch his determination and dreams. He got himself a job at Vanderbilt – an all-white university that “would never admit him as a student” – where he worked with Dr. Alfred Blalock in his medical lab. Thomas’ work was stellar: he was quickly completing his own experiments, and then surgeries under Blalock’s supervision, and mastering medical textbooks loaned by another doctor.
When Blalock was appointed Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he accepted under the condition that Thomas was hired, as well. Moving from Nashville to Baltimore was not an easy transition for Thomas and his family, but he “refused to let the prejudice of others interfere with his work.” What he accomplished – in spite of having only a formal high school education – was phenomenal.
More than a quarter century would pass before Thomas was recognized for the tiny needles he created and the procedure he pioneered that would save the lives of “blue babies,” infants born with heart defects that restricted oxygen which caused the titular bluish skin. Two white doctors, Blalock and pediatric cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig, would receive international coverage and lauds for Thomas’ work, including a Nobel Prize nomination in 1947. Shockingly, Thomas’ name was never mentioned.
Not until the 1970s was Thomas finally given his due: his portrait was hung across Blalock’s in John’s Hopkins Hospital, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Johns Hopkins University, and appointed as an Instructor of Surgery. That he never allowed racism – even the racism of the very people who should have championed his accomplishments – to prevent him from saving lives is testimony to his superior humanity.
Author Gwendolyn Hooks makes Thomas’ exceptional story available to young audiences, reclaiming significant medical history that was conspicuously overlooked for too many decades. Her endpapers provide additional information to inspire further research, surely a welcome resource for curious, inspired readers. Illustrator Colin Bootman, who brought his grand artistry to Glenda Armand’s Love Twelve Miles Long, enhances Hooks’ informative history with a quiet vibrancy on every page, carefully capturing Thomas’ tenacity in his silent expressions using muted watercolors that seem to reflect the control Thomas had to exert while working – and succeeding – in such challenging circumstances.
Tiny Stitches joins a growing roster of titles for young audiences that bring much-needed attention to accomplished heroes who were unjustifiably elided from history, predominantly because of the color of their skin. Recent examples include Tiger of the Snows about Tenzing Norgay, overshadowed by Edmund Hillary who is credited with first scaling Mt. Everest, and Keep On!: The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole and First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson, both about Henson, the first African American Arctic explorer who was part of Robert Peary’s expedition to be the first to reach the Geographic North Pole.
Better later than never: here’s to recognizing more true heroes!