How Did A Janitor Make Medical History?

Oil painting of Vivien Thomas
Leslie Taylor-Grover
December 17, 2020

Vivien Thomas could have been a real life Superman. By day he was cleaning toilets, but by the time the day ended he had advised some of the nation’s brightest surgeons on lifesaving procedures! How could this be?

Thomas always wanted to be a doctor. But just when he was ready to attend college, the stock market crashed – and so did his ability to pay for school. Broke and disappointed, he took a job as a janitor at a medical school, but then something extraordinary happened.

He became friends with a white surgeon, who immediately saw Thomas’ genius. Though Thomas was barely out of high school, he was able to give the surgeon advice on procedures and recommend new ways to save lives! And he did this with ZERO medical schooling.

Thomas’ work saved countless lives from wartime injuries, but one of his greatest accomplishments was creating and perfecting a procedure that helped save the lives of children with heart defects. Over the course of his life he eventually acquired medical training, ran a prestigious research lab, and served as a mentor to Black medical students.

Our Black excellence is not always evident when measured by racist educational standards. Like Thomas’ innovation and genius demonstrates, when we nurture our genius, there’s no limit to what we can achieve!

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