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Helen B. Taussig

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Helen Brooke Taussig (May 24, 1898 – May 20, 1986) was an American cardiologist, working in Baltimore and Boston, who founded the field of pediatric cardiology. Notably, she is credited with developing the concept for a procedure that would extend the lives of children born with Tetralogy of Fallot (the most common cause of blue baby syndrome). This concept was applied in practice as a procedure known as the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. The procedure was developed by Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, who were Taussig's colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Helen Brooke Taussig
Helen B. Taussig.jpg
Born(1898-05-24)May 24, 1898
Died20 May 1986(1986-05-20) (aged 87)
NationalityUnited States
Alma materJohns Hopkins School of Medicine
Known forPediatric cardiology, Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt
AwardsE. Mead Johnson Award (1947)
Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (1954)
John Howland Award (1971)
Elizabeth Blackwell Medal (1982)
Scientific career

Taussig is also known for her work in banning thalidomide and was widely recognized as a highly skilled physician.

Early life and careerEdit

Helen Brooke Taussig was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 24, 1898 to Frank W. Taussig and Edith Thomas Guild, who had three other children. Her father was an economist at Harvard University, and her mother was one of the first students at Radcliffe College, a women's college.

When Taussig was 11 years old, her mother succumbed to tuberculosis;[1] Helen also contracted the disease and was ill for several years, severely affecting her ability to do schoolwork. She also struggled with severe dyslexia through her early school years.[2] She graduated from Cambridge School for Girls in 1917,[citation needed] then studied for two years at Radcliffe before earning a bachelor's degree and Phi Beta Kappa membership[3] from the University of California, Berkeley in 1921.

She spent summers as a child in Cotuit, Massachusetts,[4] and later in life had a home there.[5]

Taussig later studied histology, bacteriology, and anatomy at both Harvard Medical School and Boston University, though neither school allowed her to earn a degree.[2] She was particularly discriminated against in her histology class, where she was barred from speaking to her male classmates for fear of "contamination."[6] As an anatomy student at Boston University in 1925, she published her first scientific paper on studies of ox heart muscles with Alexander Begg. She applied to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was accepted as a full-degree candidate.[2] She completed her MD degree in 1927 at Johns Hopkins, where she then remained for one year as a cardiology fellow and for two years as a pediatrics intern.[7] While at Hopkins, she received two Archibald Fellowships, spanning 1927-1930.[2]

Dr. Taussig became deaf in the later part of her career. She learned to use lip-reading techniques and hearing aids to speak with her patients, and her fingers rather than a stethoscope to feel the rhythm of their heartbeats and to lip read.[7]

Career in medicine and retirementEdit

Taussig began her career after her fellowship in cardiology with a stint as head of a rheumatic fever department. She then was hired by the pediatric department of Johns Hopkins, the Harriet Lane Home, as its chief, where she served from 1930 until 1963. While there, she did extensive work on anoxemia, called "blue baby syndrome", and discovered its cause as a partial blockage of the pulmonary artery either alone or combined with a hole between the ventricles of the infant's heart. More specifically, this blockage was a result of the closure of the ductus arteriosus, which allows the fetal heart to be directly transferred from the pulmonary arteries to the aorta of the fetus.[8] In a fetus, the lungs have not fully developed, so bypassing the left the lungs and left side of the heart allows for a more efficient way to quickly get oxygen from the mother's placenta.[9] Taussig then conveyed these observations to help come up with a solution. She worked with surgeon Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas to develop a surgery to correct the defect, resulting in what is now known as the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas shunt. They first performed the corrective surgery on dogs but by 1946 began to perform the operation on human babies. That year, she became an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; she was promoted to full professor in 1959. In 1947, Taussig published her magnum opus, Congenital Malformations of the Heart, considered to be the genesis of pediatric cardiology as an independent field.[2] In 1954, she received the Albert Lasker award for outstanding contributions to medicine.[10]

Taussig formally retired from Johns Hopkins in 1963, but continued to teach, give lectures, and lobby for various causes. In addition, she kept writing scientific papers (of the 129 total that Taussig wrote, 41 were after her retirement from Johns Hopkins). She advocated the use of animals in medical research and legalized abortion, as well as the benefits of palliative care and hospice.[2][6]

In 1965, Dr. Helen Taussig was the first woman to become the president of the American Heart Association.[10]

Taussig also learned of the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide on newborns and in 1967, testified before Congress on this matter after a trip to Germany where she worked with infants suffering from phocomelia (severe limb deformities). As a result of her efforts, thalidomide was banned in the United States and Europe.[2] In 1977, Taussig moved to a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Ever active, she continued making periodic trips to the University of Delaware for research work.[citation needed] Taussig pioneered the use of x-rays and fluoroscopy simultaneously to examine changes in a baby's heart and lungs in a less invasive manner.[11] At the time of her death, she was working on research involving the genetic basis for certain congenital heart defects with avian hearts.[2]


On May 20, 1986, four days short of her 88th birthday, Taussig was driving a group of friends to vote in a local election when her car collided with another vehicle at an intersection, killing her instantly.[2]


In 1947, Taussig was honored by France as Chevalier (knight) of the Legion d'Honneur. In 1953, she received an honorary medal from the American College of Chest Physicians. She was honored by Italy with the Feltrinelli Award in 1954;[2] that same year, she was given the Lasker Award for her work. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957.[12] In 1963, she was given the Gold Heart Award.[11] She was honored with the American Heart Association's award of merit in 1967. An honorary fellow of the American College of Cardiology in 1960, Taussig was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and the following year became the first female president of the American Heart Association.[2] In 1963, Taussig received the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women. The University of Göttingen named its cardiac clinic in honor of Taussig in 1965.[2]

In 1973, Taussig was elected to the National Academy of Sciences,[13] 27 years after Blalock was elected for their joint work on the Blalock-Taussig shunt.[11] Also in 1973, Taussig was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[14]

Johns Hopkins Hospital named the Helen B. Taussig Congenital Heart Disease Center in her honor, and in 2005 the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine named one of its four colleges in her honor.[15]

Throughout her career, Taussig earned more than 20 honorary degrees.[6] Taussig was a member of several prestigious professional societies during her career. She was a member of the American Pediatric Society, the Society for Pediatric Research, and the American College of Physicians.[11] The American Pediatric Society honored her with the Howland Award in 1971, and Johns Hopkins awarded her the Milton S. Eisenhower Medal for Distinguished Service in 1976.[6]

Film portrayalsEdit

In the 2004 HBO movie Something the Lord Made, Dr. Taussig was portrayed by Mary Stuart Masterson.


  1. ^ Yount, Lisa (1994). Contemporary Women Scientists. New York: Facts on File. p. 2. ISBN 0-8160-2895-8. Retrieved 9 November 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Harvey, Joy; Ogilvie, Marilyn (2000). The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92038-8.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Taussig, Helen Brooke (1898–1986) - Dictionary definition of Taussig, Helen Brooke (1898–1986) | FREE online dictionary Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  5. ^ ENTINE vs. REILLY, MISC 13-477228 Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  6. ^ a b c d Callahan, Clara A. (1996). Benjamin F. Shearer; Barbara S. Shearer (eds.). Helen Brooke Taussig. Notable Women in the Life Sciences. ISBN 0-313-29302-3.
  7. ^ a b "Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig". National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 5 October 2013.
  8. ^ Kiess, Marla (September 2016). "Evolution of the Treatment of Adult Congenital Heart Disease". British Columbia Medical Journal. 58(7): 368–372 – via EBSCOhost.
  9. ^ Marieb, Elaine Nicpon, 1936-. Human anatomy & physiology. Hoehn, Katja, (Eleventh ed.). [Hoboken, New Jersey]. ISBN 9780134580999. OCLC 1004376412.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ a b "Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig".
  11. ^ a b c d Bailey, Martha J. (1994). American Women in Science. ABC-CLIO. p. 387. ISBN 0-87436-740-9.
  12. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
  13. ^ "Helen B. Taussig". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
  14. ^ National Women's Hall of Fame, Helen Brooke Taussig
  15. ^ "College Advising Program". Retrieved 25 July 2012.
  • Neill, C A; Clark, E B (1999), "The Paediatric Cardiology Hall of Fame: Helen Brooke Taussig MD. May 24, 1898 to May 20, 1986", Cardiology in the young (published Jan 1999), 9 (1), pp. 104–8, doi:10.1017/S1047951100007526, PMID 10323553
  • Friedman, M (1997), "Helen Brooke Taussig, M.D.: the original pediatric cardiologist", Maryland medical journal (Baltimore, Md. : 1985) (published Sep 1997), 46 (8), pp. 445–7, PMID 9294954
  • Neill, C A (1994), "Helen Brooke Taussig", J. Pediatr. (published Sep 1994), 125 (3), pp. 499–502, doi:10.1016/S0022-3476(05)83307-4, PMID 8071766
  • McNamara, D G; Manning, J A; Engle, M A; Whittemore, R; Neill, CA; Ferencz, C (1987), "Helen Brooke Taussig: 1898 to 1986", J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. (published Sep 1987), 10 (3), pp. 662–71, doi:10.1016/S0735-1097(87)80211-5, PMID 3305662
  • Neill, C A (1987), "Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig May 24, 1898--May 20, 1986. International cardiologist", Int. J. Cardiol. (published Feb 1987), 14 (2), pp. 255–61, doi:10.1016/0167-5273(87)90017-9, PMID 3546165
  • Dietrich, H J (1986), "Helen Brooke Taussig 1898-1986", Transactions & studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (published Dec 1986), 8 (4), pp. 265–71, PMID 3544367
  • McNamara, D G (1986), "Helen Brooke Taussig: 1898-1986", Pediatr Cardiol, 7 (1), pp. 1–2, doi:10.1007/bf02315474, PMID 3534805
  • Engle, M A (1985), "Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig, living legend in cardiology", Clinical Cardiology (published Jun 1985), 8 (6), pp. 372–4, doi:10.1002/clc.4960080614, PMID 3891183
  • Harvey, A M (1977), "Helen Brooke Taussig", The Johns Hopkins medical journal (published Apr 1977), 140 (4), pp. 137–41, PMID 321852
  • Schoenberg, D G; Schoenberg, B S (1977), "Eponym: Helen Brooke Taussig: in the pink", South. Med. J. (published Jul 1977), 70 (7), p. 862, doi:10.1097/00007611-197707000-00027, PMID 327568
  • Engle, M A (1982), "Biographies of great American pediatricians--Helen Brooke Taussig: the mother of pediatric cardiology", Pediatric annals (published Jul 1982), 11 (7), pp. 629–31, doi:10.3928/0090-4481-19820701-13, PMID 7050856
  • Helen B. Taussig at Find a Grave

Further readingEdit