'Something the Lord Made'

On Friday, a local peace organization hosted a screening of Something the Lord Made, the story of Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), his experience working in the field of experimental surgery, and his pioneering work in cardiac surgery.

The movie shows Thomas's experiences as the target of White-supremacist capitalist patriarchy while he is working under Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), first at Vanderbilt University and later at Johns Hopkins University. While not an explicit part of the film, the oppression Thomas experiences is linked with that of the dogs who Thomas and Blalock use in their research.

Thomas's exploitation as a working-class Black man is obvious throughout the film. When Thomas starts working in Blalock's lab as a janitor he is an unemployed carpenter, but Thomas aspires to attend medical school and become a doctor and sees working in the lab as a step in that direction. Blalock finds that Thomas has skills and knowledge that can be exploited, so he makes Thomas his lab technician.

I think the film does a good job showing how Thomas's race and class intersect to create a distinct experience of exploitation. I do not see the film as the "story of two men ... who defied the racial strictures of the Jim Crow South and together pioneered the field of heart surgery." That description, from the HBO website, fails to acknowledge how Blalock does little to defy the institutional racism and classism that would require him to question his own privilege, a privilege that comes directly from the exploitation of Thomas. I include patriarchy because while watching the movie the structure of Blalock's lab and Johns Hopkins University seemed very patriarchal.

Blalock makes a career for himself by exploiting Thomas and keeping him from attending medical school. While Thomas is the one to pioneer the field of cardiac surgery, doing the research and developing the technique that open up the field, it is Blalock who takes all the credit. Without the credential that would come with a medical degree, Thomas is all the more vulnerable to exploitation from Blalock and Johns Hopkins.

The film shows Blalock and Thomas conducting their research on dogs collected from pounds, but this exploitation of other animals is never addressed. Like Thomas throughout much of the film, the dogs are simply there to be used and the privilege gained from their exploitation goes unrecognized. Unlike Thomas, the story of the dogs institutional exploitation is yet to be told.

Re: 'Something the Lord Made'

I watched this DVD tonight as a result of this post. A couple of things from the special features that you weren't shown:

There is a PBS documentary called Partners of the Heart, which is also the name of Thomas' autobiography.

In addition to the portraits of the two men, there is a portrait of Anna, the first dog they performed the surgery on. (I would like to know the date of that portrait.)

Of course in the film, the first time we see a dog being experimented on, it is introduced with making sure the dog is anaesthetized--because that makes it all OK.

That is all HBO wrote, but turns out they evidently left out quite a bit of the story! The PBS site says that there were actually large protests of this exact experimentation at the time noting, "By the late 1940s, Blalock and his colleagues faced severe public pressure as well as government hearings to confront the vivisection question."

I respect the purpose of the film in terms of reclaiming Black history and accomplishments, but now I am unsettled knowing the extent of what was left out. It completely re-writes the history of anti-vivisection and paints a picture of "the good old days" before the "animal rights crazies," when in fact vivisection was challenged from the start.

The Untold Story of Anna and Others

Noah, thanks for filling in some of the missing pieces of the picture regarding the exploitation of dogs like Anna and the protest from anti-vivisectionists. Anna's portrait was painted in 1951, and a film based on Anna was made in 1950 by the Maryland Society for Medical Research (to promote vivisection no doubt).

Anna was considered a lab pet and used to legitimize the exploitation of other dogs in vivisection. In 1950, she was even featured in a Time magazine article defending vivisection. According to the Time's article, surgery on dogs is "essential," and "a surgeon must learn his skill by work on dogs."

Currently, Johns Hopkins is the only top-20 ranked U.S. medical school to use live animals in its medical student curriculum. (Today they use pigs instead of dogs.) Even the Johns Hopkins News-Letter has condemned the practice.

One thing that the film down played is that the first baby operated on was also an experiment subject. You see the baby go home with smiling parents, but as Time pointed out in 1945, "That first operation was a failure: in a year, the baby died. But the experiment proved that the pulmonary artery can be bypassed" (emphasis added).

Unlike Anna, Vivien Thomas was never mentioned in any of the more than a half-dozen Time magazine articles from 1945 to 1968 that reference the "blue-baby operation." (In 1957, there was even a blurb on Squeaky, another dog used by Alfred Blalock.) Even though Anna was exploited as a pet and research "model," it must have been hard for Thomas to see Anna's portrait go up in 1951 and then have to wait until 1969 for his own portrait!

Re: 'Something the Lord Made'

I include patriarchy because while watching the movie the structure of Blalock's lab and Johns Hopkins University seemed very patriarchal.

An overt example of patriarchy that jumped out at me was when Thomas was dictating where his family would live and not letting Clara, his wife, work. Clara just cooked and took care of the baby. But of course Blalock's wife, Mary, was depicted fixing an ambulance and a lamp, and driving the ambulance too. Pretty messed up.

Not to mention how it seems Dr. Helen Taussig's contributions were minimized as well. Dr. Greek credits her clinical work, not the dog experiments for the success.