A Must See Film about Two Extraordinary Men

Few films are truly inspirational. I was channel surfing and came across a made-for-TV film that I had seen a few years ago. It was inspiring then, and it was inspiring again as my wife and I sat down this morning to watch it probably for the fifth time. We live in day of forgetfulness. We’ve forgotten the horrific effects of influenza on millions of people and the panic that the polio epidemic had on our nation in the 1950s.

Similarly, many young people have no knowledge of institutional racism in America. But there it was. Even so, many people succeeded when there were seemingly no rays of hope.

During the time when blacks were considered less than second-class citizens, there was a vibrant black culture within a dominate white culture. There were black colleges and medical schools and black-owned and operated film companies, banks, and newspapers. Blacks and whites were segregated, but this didn’t stop enterprising blacks from developing their God-given gifts. Highly skilled fathers passed down their knowledge and skills to their children. So much has changed for black young people today. Consider this about Theodore Dalrymple, a noted author and emergency room physician in Great Britain:

Theodore Dalrymple’s father was born in a British slum. Even so, his “father was given the tools to rise out of poverty, while today’s underclass is not only denied those tools, but receives excuses for remaining in poverty – and ideologies blaming their plight on others, whom they are encouraged to envy and resent. The net result is an underclass generation that has trouble spelling simple words or doing elementary arithmetic, and which has no intention of developing job skills.

By having their physical needs taken care of by the welfare state, as if they were livestock, the underclass are left with “a life emptied of meaning,” as Dalrymple says, since they cannot even take pride in providing their own food and shelter, as generations before them did. Worse, they are left with no sense of responsibility in a non-judgmental world.1

While unrecognized by the white establishment, there are nuggets of this hidden history, often hidden by the liberal establishment, if you know where to look. One place is in the 2004 made-for-television film Something the Lord Made. The film stars Mos Def as Vivien Thomas (1910–1985) and Alan Rickman as Albert Blalock (1899–1964) .

Alexander Graham Bell had Thomas Watson, Sir Edmund Hillary had Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, and Alfred Blalock had Vivien T. Thomas. Thomas was born in Louisiana on August 29, 1910. His family later moved to Nashville, Tennessee. While in Nashville, he worked as a carpenter, a skill he learned from his father, to work his way through Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School to prepare for medical school and a career as a physician.

Hard economic times after the stock market crash of 1929 forced him to drop out of school and look for work wherever he could find it. In 1930, he took a position at Vanderbilt University as a laboratory assistant with Alfred Blalock cleaning out cages of dogs that were used for new operation procedures. When Blalock’s increasing work load was affecting the time he could spend in the laboratory, he called on Thomas to assist him.

Thomas learned to perform surgery on dogs to duplicate certain heart conditions in humans. He kept precise records of chemical determinations needed for their experiments and their results. Thomas’ work as a surgical assistant and research associate were unsurpassed. His innate technical knowledge, skills he honed as a carpenter, and a quick grasp of medical concepts made him an indispensable part of Dr. Blalock’s work. But as a young black man, Thomas had to work in the shadows of anonymity. Racism and bigotry ran long and deep.

When Dr. Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1941, he asked Thomas to accompany him. Thomas joined Blalock’s surgical team and helped to develop the procedure used to treat Tetralogy of Fallot or “blue baby syndrome.” He helped train many of the surgeons at Johns Hopkins in the delicate techniques necessary for heart and lung operations. Thomas was a member of the medical school faculty from 1976 until 1985 and was presented with the degree of Honorary Doctor of Laws by the Johns Hopkins University in 1976. Thomas designed and perfected what is known as the “Blalock Clamp” used in delicate heart surgery procedures. Given what we learn in the film, it should have been named the “Vivien Thomas Clamp.”

Blalock praises Thomas’ surgical skill as being “like something the Lord made” and insists that Thomas coach him through the first Blue Baby surgery over the protests of Hopkins administrators. Yet outside the lab, they are separated by the prevailing racism of the time.

There are numerous wonderful moments in this film. One of my favorites is the scene when Thomas is working to make some extra money by serving drinks and hors d’oeuvrs at a party. He’s one of the help. Then Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig shows up to encourage Dr. Blalock to tackle blue baby syndrome. A discussion ensues as Thomas moves about the two doctors and some spectators, with Thomas throwing out medical terminology and procedures to the shock of the guests. “Who are you?” is the only thing Dr. Taussig can say.

If you are looking for an uplifting film, then Something the Lord Made is one of the best. You can see it on Netflix.2 I have to warn you that there is some language in it. Apparently, Dr. Blalock was a difficult man to work with, and it shows in this film. But there is great reward in watching the extraordinary lives of two men who changed the history of medicine together despite all the obstacles. Great lessons for all of us.

  1. Thomas Sowell, “Life at the Bottom” in The Thomas Sowell Reader (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 17. []
  2. In 2003, the PBS series American Experience premiered the documentary Partners of the Heart based on the autobiography of Vivien Thomas, which was about the collaboration between Blalock and Thomas. Partners of the Heart won the Organization of American Historians’ Erik Barnouw Award for Best History Documentary in 2004. []