Helen Brooke Taussig

Born 1898
Died 1986

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American paediatric cardiologist, born 1898, Cambridge, Massachusetts; died May 20, 1986, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Biography of Helen Brooke Taussig

Helen Brooke Taussig classified and described many of the cardiac malformations. She is known for saving the lives of "blue babies", and played an important role in preventing the use of thalidomide in the USA.

She was the youngest of four children Frank W. Taussig, a well known economist who taught at Harvard and was adviser to Woodrow Wilson. Her mother, Edith, née Guild, died when Helen was 11 years old. She was a frail child suffering from tuberculosis that often forced her to skip many days at school. To make matters worse, she had dyslexia. To the dismay of her father, Helen's report cards were never good. However, despite struggling with her dyslexia, which she eventually overcame to become a good reader, she completed Radcliff College, the women's college connected to Harvard, in 1917. Her mother had been one of the first students at Radcliffe College. Taussig then gained a BA at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1921. She attempted to enter Harvard but at this time the university would not admit women. She then took a course of anatomy at Boston University and greatly impressed professor Alexander Begg, dean and professor of anatomy, who advised her to apply to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, one of very few medical Schools in America that accepted women.

This she did with a letter of support from Walter Bradford Cannon (1871-1945), and she commenced at Johns Hopkins in 1923, gaining her M.D. in 1927. However, she was then confronted with the loss of her hearing. Determined to practice anyway, and choosing paediatric cardiology as her specialty, she learned to read lips and to "listen with her fingers" to her patients' hearts. This fine-tuned sensitivity, combined with her acute powers of observation, led Taussig to one of the most important discoveries in cardiac care in the twentieth century—and to the beginning of open-heart surgery.

She did not succeed in obtaining an internship in medicine and entered paediatrics. Professor Edwards A. Park, at the time, was initiating specialty clinics, and in 1930 she was appointed to head his cardiac clinic at the Harriet Lane Home, a position she held until 1963.

Blue babies
Here she became interested in rheumatic fever and congenital heart defects and began studying "blue babies," infants whose colour at birth indicated inadequate oxygenation of their blood. With the introduction of more advanced x-ray machines, she started to notice some interesting patterns in her blue babies. One day, she noticed something that nobody had ever realized before. How could it be, wondered Helen, that some blue-babies lived longer than others? While some blue-babies died after only a few days, others lived for months and even years.

Helen Taussig knew that all babies were born with hearts that were slightly different from grown-ups. The most important difference was a very special blood vessel called the ductus arteriosus. Taussig knew that this blood vessel normally closed by itself after birth. She also knew that the timing of when the ductus closed varied between people. By using her stethoscope, she could tell when a child's heart was making the change towards becoming adult-like.

Her studies soon led her to appreciate that most cyanotic heart babies had an enlarged right ventricle, and that complete circulation of the blood to the lungs was prevented. She connected the downward march of cyanotic heart disease and death with anoxaemia and first recognised that patients with a patent ductus and cyanotic heart disease did far better than those without, and that closure of the ductus in such circumstances was followed by a worsening of the condition. She reasoned that if the ductus arteriosus could be kept open or if an artificial pathway could be constructed, the blue babies would get blood to the lungs and do much better.

When Alfred Blalock came to Johns Hopkins in 1941, Taussig suggested to him that the construction of a patent ductus might provide a solution to the anoxia of children with Fallot’s tetralogy or "blue baby" syndrome, a syndrome caused by a congenital heart defect that deprives the blood of the necessary amount of oxygen. With Blalock's brilliant technician, Vivien Thomas, they developed an idea for an operation to help children with cyanotic congenital heart defect,

Blalock and Thomas, continued to move forward with the problem of providing oxygen to the pulmonary artery. A shunt first tried at Vanderbilt ultimately provided the answer. After much work on laboratory animals, the Blalock-Taussig procedure was successfully performed on a very ill, high-risk patient in 1944. He was deeply blue and could hardly eat without gasping for air. Although the frail child died months later in a second operation, the child survived long enough to demonstrate the survival of a surgical procedure that would save the lives of tens of thousands of children.

"He's a lovely colour now!"

The success of the operation brought Taussig recognition as the founder of paediatric cardiology.

In 1945, Helen Taussig and Alfred Blalock published a joint paper on the first three operations in the Journal of the American Medical Association; this publication had an immediate worldwide impact. Taussig and Blalock made numerous clinical presentations and case demonstrations in both Europe and the United States. The success of the procedure attracted many patients to Johns Hopkins for treatment, and it also brought many physicians to learn the techniques of the procedure.

Preventing a thalidomide disaster in the USA
Despite the large number of children whose lives have been saved by the Blalock-Taussig operation, her most important contribution to society occurred in the 1960's. In the late 1960s and early 1960s, thalidomide, a tranquillising drug, had produced large numbers of deformed newborns in Europe. In January 1962 one of her students drew her attention to these congenital malformations, known as phocomelia, occurring in Germany and England and possibly caused by thalidomide. Taussig saw the emergency and in February went to Europe to check thalidomide reports. By the end of her tour through Europe, she was convinced that the sleeping pill was causing the birth defects and that more people had to be warned. She returned to the United States where she addressed the American College of Physicians about thalidomide in April 1962, and reported her findings to the Food and Drug Administration. The U. S. Government as well as doctors throughout America took her recommendations seriously, and the use of the sleeping pill by pregnant women was stopped. As early as in March, 1963 a law requiring more careful drug testing went into effect.

She was appointed professor of paediatrics in 1959 and retired from Johns Hopkins in 1963. On 1965 she became the first female president of the American Heart Association. In the late 1970's Helen Taussig moved to Pennsylvania. There she was killed in a car accident in Kennett Square on May 21, 1986, three days before her 88th birthday.

Taussig received widespread recognition and honours for her contributions to cardiology, including the French Chevalier Legion d'Honneur, the Italian Feltrinelli Prize, the Peruvian Presidential Medal of Honour, and the United States of America Medal of Freedom, given her by President Lyndon B. Johnson. She was the 1970 recipient of the Elizabeth Blackwell Award

To this day, the "Helen B. Taussig Children's Pediatric Cardiac Center" at Johns Hopkins Hospital stands in memory of the woman who solved the mystery of the blue babies.

    "Over the years I've gotten recognition for what I did, but I didn't at the time. It hurt for a while. It hurt when Dr. Blalock (the surgeon who performed the initial 'blue baby' operations according to her directions) was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and I didn't even get promoted from an assistant to associate professor."

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