Helen Taussig (1898-1986)
One of the first pediatricians to specialize in pediatric cardiology, Taussig found a way for surgeons to improve the lifespan of the children she saw in her congenital heart disease clinic. Later, she would become the first female president of the American Heart Association, and would write the foundational textbook of pediatric cardiology.
Helen Taussig was the youngest of four children. Her father was a professor in economics at Harvard University, and her mother was one of the first female graduates from Radcliffe College – but died of tuberculosis when Taussig was only 11 years old.
Taussig was left with partial hearing loss after a infection as a child, and she struggled with school. She had dyslexia as well. Her father helped her with her reading difficulties, and she excelled, following her mother to Radcliffe College (where she also excelled in tennis), and then finishing her undergraduate studies at the University of California in Berkeley in 1921.
She wanted to go to Harvard University for medical school, but no women would be allowed until 1945. She applied to the school of public health, and was told she could attend lectures, without hope of a degree. Taussig instead took classes at Boston University Medical School. Her anatomy instructor was impressed with her work, and suggested she apply to Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Johns Hopkins was founded in 1893. When the founders struggled to raise money for the school, the Women's Fund Committee led by Mary Garrett offered to supply $500,000, with the condition that women be accepted on the same terms as the men. Unlike Harvard (founded a century earlier), Johns Hopkins had to take women - and accepted Taussig in the class of 1923.
After receving her MD from Hopkins in 1927, Taussig wanted to specialize in Internal Medicine, but there was only one spot for a woman in general medicine at Hopkins, and that spot was already taken. Taussig decided to study pediatrics instead, focusing on pediatric cardiology. She used a stethoscope, a hearing aid and an auditory amplifier to compensate for her hearing deficit. Later in life, as her hearing worsened, she used her fingertips to feel the vibrations of a child’s heartbeat.
In 1934, Taussig was frustrated by the many children with untreatable congenital heart disease attending her rheumatic heart disease clinic at the Harriet Lane Home of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her supervisors told her she couldn't exclude children with congenital heart anomalies, so instead she started collecting information about them.
She noted that some children with congenital heart anomalies – “blue babies” – did better than others, with fewer symptoms and longer survival. Some of these children had another congenital anomaly called a patent ductus arteriosus. She went to the surgeon Robert Gross, who rejected the idea of building a ductus arteriosus in a child.
In 1943, she met with Alfred Blalock, a heart surgeon at Johns Hopkins who found the idea interesting. Blalock asked his technician, a Black man named Vivien Thomas, to build an animal model for the creation of a patent ductus arteriosus. In less than two years, after experimentation on approximately 200 dogs, Thomas guided Blalock through the complicated procedure to save the lives of children with Tetralogy of Fallot. This procedure is now called the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt (formerly Blalock-Taussig shunt). (Vivien Thomas would later train Rowena Spencer in general surgery at Johns Hopkins.)
In 1947, Taussig published Congenital Malformations of the Heart, the foundational textbook of pediatric cardiology. With the cardiologist Richard Bing, she described a double-outlet right ventricle heart condition in 1949, called Taussig-Bing syndrome.
Taussig received the Albert Lasker Clinical Award, the “American Nobel,” along with Blalock and Gross, in 1954. She became the second woman to receive full professorship at Johns Hopkins in 1959. (The first was Florence Rena Sabin, in 1917.)
She retired from directorship of the Harriet Lane Home in 1963, but continued to be involved in medicine and advocacy. In 1965 she became the first female president of the American Heart Association, arguing for Medicare (against the American Medical Association) and working to alert the American public to the teratogenic dangers of thalidomide (a sleeping agent and anti-emetic sold in Europe).
Taussig died in a car crash in 1986, three days before her 88th birthday.
Now Johns Hopkins Medical School has named one of its four colleges for her, as well as the Helen B. Taussig Congenital Heart Disease Center, and since 2018 has given out a Helen B. Taussig Research Award to postdoctoral fellows. Now Taussig is known as the “mother of pediatric cardiology” – but she was not always appreciated for her achievements. As she put it, “Over the years I’ve gotten recognition for what I did, but I didn’t at the time. It hurt for a while.”
Van Robays, J. Helen B. Taussig (1898-1986). Facts, Views and Vision in ObGyn. 2016 Sep;8(3):183-187.
Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD