Blue baby operation
Before 1944 babies who were born with cyanosis either died or lived with painful physical defects. Cyanosis is a condition of bluish skin caused by lack of oxygen in the blood. The plight of these "blue babies" aroused the interest of Dr. Helen Taussig of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Taussig became head of that hospital's Children's Heart Clinic in the 1930s. After much pioneering fluoroscopy (using a fluorescent screen and X-ray transmissions to view internal structures) research, Taussig developed a theory that cyanosis was due to constriction (tightening) of the pulmonary artery. (The pulmonary artery carries oxygen-depleted bluish blood from the heart to the lungs. Once in the lungs, the blood absorbs oxygen and becomes red again). With this information, Taussig visited heart surgeon Robert Gross (1905-) of Boston, Massachusetts. Gross had developed an operation to close babies' blood vessels. Taussig was convinced that a reverse operation should be possible, one that would open a blocked blood vessel.
In 1941 Dr. Alfred Blalock (1899-1964) became chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins. Blalock had an excellent reputation as a vascular surgeon, and had conducted research in blood vessel bypass surgery. Taussig interested Blalock in her theory about cyanosis. Together they experimented on hundreds of dogs to perfect an operation in which a branch of the aorta is joined to the pulmonary artery. This creates a bypass of the defective portion and assures an adequate flow of blood to the lungs. In 1944, Blalock and Taussig performed the first "blue baby operation" on a 15-month-old girl. Two more successful operations followed. A paper by Taussig and Blalock reported the procedure in a 1945 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The operation these two surgeons performed became known as the "Blalock-Taussig Shunt." The procedure was soon widely adopted and saved thousands of babies' lives. Surgeons came to Johns Hopkins from around the world to learn the new procedure, and Blalock traveled abroad to further spread knowledge of the operation. This operative technique is still used today for very young children. It keeps them alive until they are old enough for open-heart surgery. A modified procedure using man-made material for the shunt was first performed in 1963. The Blalock-Taussig procedure was the beginning of the modern era of heart surgery. It paved the way for openheart surgery and surgical correction of many congenital heart defects.