Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Helen Brooke Taussig (1898-1986)
MSA SC 3520-13565

Biography:

Though she had none of her own, children brought much joy and fullfilment to the life and career of Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig.  Esteemed for her development of pediatric cardiology, Dr. Taussig devoted her work to helping young children with debilitating heart conditions, most notably, the "blue-baby" syndrome, in which infants did not receive enough oxygen in their blood.1  Her tireless efforts to develop procedures to treat congenital heart defects earned her numerous awards and honors.  However, above all else, she prized the life-long connections she maintained with her patients, whom she referred to as "my babies."  Her collected papers, housed at The Johns Hopkins University, include numerous boxes of scrapbooks, correspondence, and photographs of her beloved patients and their families, a testament to her undying devotion to her work and the people she served.

Helen Brooke Taussig was born on May 24, 1898, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was the youngest of four children.  Taussig came from a family with a strong educational background.  She has described herself as from a "direct line of teachers, an indirect line of doctors."  Her father, Frank William Taussig, was a well-known Harvard economist and was the first chairman of the United States Tariff Commission.  Her mother, Edith Guild Taussig, had studied natural sciences and zoology and was one of the first graduates of Radcliffe College.   In addition, her paternal grandfather worked closely with blind children and had The William Taussig School for Handicapped Children in Saint Louis, Missouri, named for him.2  Her parents instilled this sense of the value of education and achievement in all their children.  Helen worked hard in her pursuit of learning, but found it very hard to complete her tasks, especially reading assignments.  When it was discovered she had dyslexia, her father helped her persevere and overcome her reading difficulties.  After completing her studies at the Cambridge, Massachusetts School for Girls, Taussig followed her mother's footsteps and entered Radcliffe College in 1917.  By 1919, Helen wanted time away from home and a chance to be on her own, so she transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and received her BA degree in 1921.3  Upon returning to Cambridge, her father encouraged her to enter the field of public health, which he felt was more suitable for a female than medicine.  Taussig decided to enter the School of Public Health at Harvard University, but encountered discrimination based on her sex.  The Dean of the school informed Taussig that she would be able to take courses, but would not be eligible to earn a degree.  As Jeanne Hackley Stevenson explains in Notable Maryland Women, "She [Taussig] later recalled asking the Dean, 'Who wants to study for four years and get no degree at all for that work?' She got the point when the Dean replied, smiling, 'Nobody, I hope.' "4  Not one to get discouraged, Taussig applied to the Medical School of Boston University and was accepted.  She studied there from 1921 until 1924, at which point one of her professors, noticing her talent, suggested she enroll in The Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.  Helen took his advice and transferred to The Johns Hopkins University, receiving her M.D. in 1927.

Upon completion of medical school, Taussig was ready to begin her hands-on training.  However, she faced discrimination yet again when applying for an internship at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Internships in medicine for females were limited to one space only, and Taussig discovered that a fellow female graduate had already been given the post.  To her dismay, she was not able to secure an internship at Hopkins in internal medicine and was forced to alter her career path.5  Dr. Taussig chose, instead, to accept an internship in pediatrics in 1928, a move that would prove to be monumental to both her own career and the medical field as a whole.   She was appointed assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1930 and continued her study of the heart, which she had chosen to specialize in after her graduation from medical school.  In 1931, Taussig was promoted to physician-in-charge of the Pediatric Cardiac Clinic of the Harriet Lane Home, a division of the hospital.  This position enabled her to blend her background in pediatrics with her burgeoning study of cardiology, and found she throughly enjoyed the work she performed there.  By the time she entered the position at the Harriet Lane Home, Dr. Taussig had lost a significant amount of her hearing, which forced her to work through many difficulties, such as not being able to use a stethoscope.  However, she was not going to be deterred and worked around her handicap by learning to listen to tiny heart vibrations through the gentle touch of her hands.6

During her time at the Harriet Lane Home, Helen Taussig was introduced to a debilitating disorder with no known treatment or cure that affected numerous infants who were brought to the Clinic.  Many infants appeared to have a bluish-tinge to their skin, called cyanosis, which was due to a lack of adequately oxygenated blood.  These so-called "Blue Babies" suffered from a congential heart defect that caused a narrowing or closure of the pulmonary artery, which prevented a sufficient supply of blood from the heart to travel to the lungs, where it could receive fresh oxygen.7  Such children were seriously debilitated and often did not live past the teenage years, if they even survived infancy.   Dr. Taussig was the primary care provider for these children when she began her tenure at the Harriet Lane Home.  As Carolyn B. Stegman states in Women of Achievement in Maryland History, "Physicians at the clinic were reluctant to refer most of their heart patients to a woman pediatrician, but as Taussig recalled, 'they gladly referred their 'blue babies' to me as nothing could be done for them.' "8  Dr. Taussig was convinced that a procedure could be created to aide these children.  She had recently heard of a surgery performed by a physician in Boston that closed off the ductus arteriosus, a blood vessel not needed by babies after birth, in infants where the closure did not take place naturally.  Taussig theorized that if an artery to the heart could be closed, one could also be opened to help save the lives of "blue babies."  In 1943, Dr. Alfred Blalock had become the chair of the Hopkins Department of Surgery and was persuaded by Helen Taussig to pursue the development of a surgical procedure to treat "blue babies." Over the course of the next year and a half, Dr. Taussig, aided by Blalock and his associate, Vivien Thomas, experimented with the bypass on approximately 200 dogs to create, what was eventually called, the Blalock-Taussig shunt.  The procedure involved diverting a branch of the aorta that normally went to the infant's arm to the lungs.  The shunt would act as a functional blood vessel that could circumvent the defective vessels and allow blood to reach the lungs and oxygenate.9  On November 29, 1944, the first surgery was successfully peformed on Eileen Saxon, a fifteen month old baby who barely weighed ten pounds.  Dr. Taussig was thrilled to see the girl's skin change from its previously blue-tinge to a healthy pink glow.10  Although Saxon died a few months later from complications unrelated to her surgery, the success she had had with the Blalock-Taussig shunt made Drs. Blalock and Taussig famous, skyrocketed the attention given to pediatric cardiology, and brought a resurgence of interest in Hopkins as distraught parents brought their "blue babies" to the hospital for treatment.  Dr. Taussig was recognized as the first lady of cardiology in the world and the founder of pediatric cardiology.  Similarly, the surgery was seen as the dawn of pediatric heart surgery.11  Taussig continued perfecting the operation, and by 1951, the Blalock-Taussig shunt had been performed on 1,037 patients, and the mortality rate lessened to under five percent. Unlike Dr. Blalock, however, Helen Taussig had to wait for a promotion after the success of the ground-breaking operation.  In 1946, she was promoted to associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, but it was not until 1959 that she was promoted to full-professor, the first woman to ever hold that position at The Johns Hopkins University.12

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Taussig continued performing surgeries and doing her own research.  Her studies focused on disorders of the heart, especially rheumatic fever, which she had spent her energies on researching prior to the "blue baby" operations.  She enjoyed teaching at Johns Hopkins, as well, and always had many interns, dubbing themselves "the Loyal Knights of Taussig," who were eager to work under her demanding tutelage.13  She has always been remembered for her kind demeanor, but also for her high expectations of students and colleages.  Taussig continued teaching at Johns Hopkins until her retirement in 1963.  She also published many of her research findings.  One such publication, Congential Malformations of the Heart (1947), became the standard textbook of the field and the bible for pediatric cardiologists of the time.   She also traveled with Dr. Blalock to demonstrate their procedure to physicians around the world.  In 1964, she was honored with the United States of America Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.  Her medal, presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, had inscribed on it, "Her fundamental concepts have made possible the modern surgery of the heart, which enables countless children to lead productive lives."14  In addition, she was installed as the frist woman president of the American Heart Association in 1965.15  Over the course of her career Dr. Taussig received numerous other awards and honors.  These include: named chevalier Legion of Honor (France); the first female recipient of the Passano Foundation Award for an outstanding contribution to medical science, shared with Dr. Blalock, 1948; honored by Hobart College as one of twelve female physicians who contributed "to the glory of their profession," 1949; the Honor Medal of the American College of Chest Physicians, 1953; the Antonio Feltrinelli Prize, 1954; the Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association, 1954; the Gardiner Award, 1959; the Gold Heart award from the American Heart Association, 1963; the first Thomas River Memorial Research Fellowship Award, 1963; the first recipient of a new Fellowship awarded by the National Foundation of the March of Dimes for scientists at retirement age, 1963; the Founders Award from Radcliffe College, 1966; the Carl Ludwig Medal of Honor, 1967; the William F. Faulkner National Rehabilitation Award, 1971; one of the first inductees into the National Women's Hall of Fame, 1973; and the James B. Herrick Award from the American Heart Association, 1974.16

In 1961, Dr. Helen Taussig was tipped-off by a former student of the recent developments of abnormal births Europeans were encountering.  Children were born with severe deformaties, such as malformed or missing limbs.  Dr. Taussig decided to go to Germany in order to look into what had caused the increasing number of strange births.  What she found out when she examined the cases and interviewed mothers and doctors was that the patients had all used a tranquilizer, named Contergan, to alleviate morning sickness during their pregnancies.  Taussig immediately linked the usage of Contergan with the debilitating deformities found in these infants.17  Returning to the United States six weeks after she began her investigation in Germany, she immediately started lobbying for greater measures to be taken to prevent the approval of the drug, named Thalidomide in the U.S.,  by the Food and Drug Administration.  A Baltimore Sun article from 1962 stated that, "Dr. Taussig reported she is [also] waging a campaign to strengthen the Food and Drug Act against drugs which can cause 'new and unprecedented complications.'  One great hazard of women using drugs during their childbearing years is that they can take a harmful dose without realizing they are pregnant, she said."18  Her reports and vocalizations about the serious problems associated with the drug were instrumental in the FDA's rejection of the application from the William S. Merrell Company to market the drug in the United States, saving countless numbers of infants from the tragedy faced in Europe.  

After retirement Dr. Taussig remained involved in her work as a scientist, clinician, and activist in causes that affected the health of children.  She spoke out against those who tried to put restraints upon medical research, especially fetal research, and advocated the use of animals in experimental studies.19  Although she moved to a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, in her later years, Taussig continued to make trips to Baltimore to visit colleages and former patients.  In addition, she frequented the University of Delaware in Wilmington to conduct studies of the development of heart defects in birds, which she found were similar in structure to human hearts.  She died in a car crash on May 20, 1986, near her home in Pennsylvania.  She is remembered both because of her career accomplishments and for her endearing personality.  Jeanne Hackley Stevenson explains, "It has been observed that Helen Brooke Taussig was involved in 'women's liberation' long before the term was coined.  She got into and through medical school, won 'male-dominated appointments,' and battled 'medical and male chauvenism' throughout her lifetime.  And significantly, Helen B. Taussig is 'revered by students and colleagues not only as a fine teacher and doctor, full of compassion for her small patients, but as a woman as well.' "20  Her perserverance against the odds, be it dyslexia, deafness, or sex discrimination, her career accomplishments, and her admirable character, as seen in the close ties with her patients, will continue to influence and encourage generations to come.   

Endnotes:

1. "Helen Brooke Taussig," Biography Resource Center, 2005.     http://galenet.galegroup.com.   return to text

2.  Stevenson, Jeanne Hackley. "Helen Brooke Taussig, 1898- :The 'Blue Baby' Doctor," Notable Maryland Women, ed. Winifred G. Helmes (Cambridge, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1977) 368.   return to text

3.  Biography Resource Center.   return to text

4.  Stevenson, 368.   return to text

5.  Stegman, Carolyn B. Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Maryland: Anaconda Press, 2002) 213.   return to text

6.  "Changing the Face of Medicine, Biography: Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig," National Library of Medicine, 2004.  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_316.html.   return to text

7.  Fishbein, Gershon. "The Surgery that Gave Hope for 'Blue Babies'; At Johns Hopkins 50 Years Ago, A New Approach to Congenital Heart Defects was Born," The Washington Post, 6 December 1994.   return to text

8.  Stegman, 213.   return to text

9.  Ettlin, David Michael. "Hopkins' Helen Taussig, Noted Cardiologist, Dies," The Baltimore Sun, 21 May 1986.   return to text

10. "The Blue Baby Operation: Online Exhibit,"  The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, n.d.   http://medicalarchives.jhmi.edu/page1.htm.   return to text

11.  "Dr. Helen Taussig Pioneer Cardiologist; 'Blue Babies': Hopkins Physician's Breakthough Work Created Pediatric Heart Surgery," The Baltimore Sun, 17 July 1999.   return to text

12.  Biography Resource Center.   return to text

13.  "Dr. Helen Taussig Pioneer Cardiologist; 'Blue Babies': Hopkins Physician's Breakthrough Work Created Pediatric Heart Surgery," The Baltimore Sun, 17 July 1999.   return to text

14.  Ibid.   return to text

15.  "Dr. Taussig Made U.S. Heart Unit Head," The Baltimore Sun, 20 October 1965.   return to text

16.  Biography Resource Center.   return to text

17.  "Abnormal Births Draw Warning on Tranquilizers," The Baltimore Sun, 19 June 1962.   return to text

18.  Ibid.   return to text

19.  Stevenson, 370.   return to text

20.  Stevenson, 371.   return to text

Biography written by 2005 summer intern Lauren Morton         


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