Taussig, Helen Brooke (1898-1986)
Congenital malformations of the heart. New York: Commonwealth Fund, 1947.
Helen Taussig, known as the founder of pediatric cardiology, significantly contributed to the field of medicine with her discovery of the cause for anoxemia, or “blue baby” syndrome, and her suggestion of its operative treatment. The operation resulting from her initiative was a major breakthrough in the development of cardiac surgery.
Taussig came from an academic and scientific background. Her father was a renowned economist at Harvard University. Her grandfather, who was a physician specializing in the treatment of children with defective eyesight, may have influenced her decision to become doctor. Also, her mother’s early death when Helen was just eleven might have contributed to this career choice. Taussig received an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1921, after which she took a half-course at Harvard Medical School, since women were not yet admitted to their full program (Current Biography). Later, she joined the medical program at Johns Hopkins and received her M.D. in 1927. Taussig remained there as a fellow in the hospital heart station in 1928, and as an intern in the pediatrics department from 1928 to 1930. These two post-graduate opportunities prepared her for an appointment in 1930 as head of the Children’s Heart Clinic of the Harriet Lane Home, the pediatric division of Johns Hopkins. Dr. Taussig was the first woman to become a full professor at that institution (Porter, Camb. Illus. Hist. of Med., 236). She held this position until retiring in 1963.
While treating patients in the Children’s Heart Clinic, Helen became particularly driven to help children suffering from blue baby syndrome. Babies with this congenital heart defect died very young because of an inadequate supply of oxygen to the heart. An outward manifestation of this defect, blue-tinged skin, gave the malady its name. By using the new x-ray technique called fluoroscopy to compare healthy and anoxemic hearts, Dr. Taussig discovered that blue babies have both a leaky septum and an extra small artery bridging the heart and lungs (American National Biography). Also, she recognized that some blue baby patients had another congenital heart defect, persistent ductus, but that they were actually better off than those without it. Apparently, the ductus allowed blood to flow to the lungs better. She deduced that surgical creation of an artificial ductus would produce more adequate pulmonary blood flow in blue babies (Porter, Greatest Benefit, pp. 616-17). In 1941, Dr. Taussig asked Johns Hopkins surgeon Alfred Blalock to work on developing this operation. With the assistance of his surgical technician, Vivien Thomas, Blalock successfully performed an operation on a blue baby in 1944. The procedure soon became utilized by surgeons worldwide, and was a significant breakthrough in cardiac surgery that led towards the development of open heart surgery (Current Biography).
Helen Taussig’s many studies of congenital heart difficulties and their investigation through fluoroscopy were compiled into her 1947 book Congenital Malformations of the Heart. A full description of the Blalock-Taussig operation is included within this book that became the Bible of pediatric cardiology for years to come (Porter, Greatest Benefit, p. 617).
American National Biography, Biography Reference Bank, H. W. Wilson; Current Biography, Biography Reference Bank, H. W. Wilson; Porter, Camb. Illus. Hist. of Med., p. 236; Porter, Greatest Benefit, pp. 616-617.
Image: Helen Taussig, Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.