Skip to main content
Some hospital logos
Ontario’s Children’s Hospitals rename cardiac procedure to recognize critical role of Black pioneer Vivien Thomas

In a move to honour the groundbreaking contributions of Black surgical pioneer Vivien Thomas, Ontario’s five children's hospitals have officially renamed the cardiac procedure previously known as the Blalock-Taussig (BT) shunt to the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig (BTT) shunt. This collective change recognizes the indispensable role played by Vivien Thomas in the development of paediatric cardiac surgery and serves to highlight the importance of Black pioneers in medicine. Medical historians have expressed that Thomas is perhaps the “most untalked about, unappreciated, unknown giant in the African American community” (Blake & Yancy, 2022). Thomas made significant contributions to the medical field, influencing a generation of surgeons and lab technicians.

On November 29, 1944, Dr. Alfred Blalock, Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, carried out a groundbreaking operation to treat a disorder known as tetralogy of Fallot, a common cause of ‘blue baby’ syndrome. This procedure is used on babies with heart defects that affect blood flow to the lungs. The procedure was initially named after two of the pioneers: Dr. Blalock and Dr. Helen Taussig. What is notably absent is the contribution of another team member: Vivien Thomas.

In 1929, Thomas, who aspired to a career as a physician, enrolled in college. When the Wall Street Crash of 1929 affected his savings, Thomas dropped out of university to find a job. He obtained a position at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Dr. Blalock's laboratory as a laboratory assistant and became the technician who ran Dr. Blalock's surgical experiments and conducted most of the fundamental studies.

As a result of racial discrimination, Thomas' contribution to the development of the shunt procedure remained relatively unknown outside of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Thomas and his contributions went unmentioned in the original JAMA report on the procedure (1945), co-written by Drs. Blalock and Taussig, leading to its common reference as the ‘BT’ shunt. 

The renaming of the procedure to BTT shunt not only honours Vivien Thomas but serves to demonstrate Ontario children’s hospitals’ ongoing commitment to fostering an inclusive and diverse healthcare environment.

"Honouring the legacy of Vivien Thomas is a tribute to a pioneering figure. It’s also a way we can express our goal to create environments where every child, irrespective of background, feels seen, heard, and embraced,” says CHEO’s president and CEO, Alex Munter. “Thank you to the clinicians who brought forward this proposal.”

“The BTT Shunt has helped save so many of our youngest patients,” says Bruce Squires, President of McMaster Children’s Hospital. “Vivien Thomas’ contribution to pediatric cardiac medicine has gone unrecognized for far too long, and it is an honour for us to rename this innovative procedure. As this is Black History month it is also important to recognize the leadership of our Black health leaders and allies in making this change a reality at MCH and Hamilton Health Sciences.”

“The renaming of the procedure to the BTT Shunt, in honor of the pioneering work of Vivien Thomas, symbolizes our collective commitment, together with other Ontario’s children’s hospitals, to confront and address anti-Black racism and foster an inclusive and diverse healthcare system that embraces and values the unique perspectives of all individuals. Holland Bloorview believes that recognizing the contributions of diverse medical innovators like Thomas is crucial in our ongoing journey towards equity and excellence in healthcare." - Julia Hanigsberg, President and CEO, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital

“In solidarity with our provincial partners, Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre is proud to support the renaming of the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. This simple act will help ensure that Vivien Thomas receives the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the medical field. We acknowledge that Black individuals have endured a history of racism, discrimination, and exclusion within the health-care system for far too long and stand firm in our commitment to dismantle systems of oppression, racism, and discrimination to transform care in a way that meets the needs of the communities we serve.” - Nash Syed, President, Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre

“This necessary renaming of the BTT shunt procedure shines a light on the indispensable role Vivien Thomas played in the development of innovative paediatric cardiac surgical techniques. This long-overdue recognition serves as a powerful reminder of the need to confront and address anti-Black racism and foster an inclusive and diverse health-care system that values the unique perspectives of all individuals.” - Dr. Ronald Cohn, President and CEO, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)