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Helen Brooke Taussig, M.D.
Pediatric Cardiologist
1898 - 1986

She was appointed professor of paediatrics in 1959 and retired from Johns Hopkins in 1963. On 1965 she became the first female president of the American Heart Association. In the late 1970's Helen Taussig moved to Pennsylvania. There she was killed in a car accident in Kennett Square on May 21, 1986, three days before her 88th birthday.


Taussig, Helen Brooke (1898-1986), American physician, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, known for saving the lives of "blue babies." She studied at the medical schools at Harvard, Boston, and Johns Hopkins universities, receiving an M.D. degree in 1927. She became interested in rheumatic diseases and other heart disorders in children and, with Alfred Blalock, developed a surgical technique to alleviate the "blue-baby" condition, or cyanosis, caused by a congenital cardiac malformation that prevents complete circulation of the blood to the lungs. After 1944, when the first Blalock-Taussig operation was developed, many blue babies were saved from invalidism or death.

Taussig, Helen Brooke (1898-1986)

US cardiologist who developed surgery for 'blue' babies. Such babies never fully develop the shunting mechanism in the circulatory system that allows blood to be oxygenated in the lungs before passing to the rest of the body. The babies are born chronically short of oxygen and usually do not survive without surgery.



Helen B. Taussig was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She received her A.B. in 1921 from the University of California and her M.D. in 1927 from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She served as an Archibald Fellow in Medicine at Johns Hopkins and worked at the heart station from 1927 until 1928. From 1928 until 1930, she interned in pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 1930, Edwards Park appointed Taussig physician-in-charge of the Harriet Lane Cardiac Clinic, a position she held until 1963. She also served on the faculty of the school of medicine from 1930 until 1963, when she became professor emeritus of pediatrics. Taussig was a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of congenital heart disease. She helped to develop the surgical procedure commonly known as the "blue baby" operation and discovered the teratological effects of the drug thalidomide when administered to pregnant women


Pediatric cardiologist:  Helen B. Taussig


 Women in American History (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Taussig, Helen Brooke
(1898-1986), physician
Born on May 24, 1898, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Helen Taussig studied at Radcliffe College, the University of California at Berkeley (B.A., 1921), Harvard University, and Boston University before earning her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1927. In 1930 she became the head of Johns Hopkins' pediatric heart clinic in Baltimore, a position she held until 1963. She began studying "blue babies," infants whose color at birth indicated inadequate oxygenation of their blood, and she pioneered the use of fluoroscopy and X rays to study such defects, eventually pinpointing the particular heart malformation responsible for a particular set of symptoms. In the early 1940s Taussig and the vascular surgeon Alfred Blalock devised a surgical treatment (known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt) for infants born with the condition known as the tetralogy of Fallot, or "blue baby" syndrome. The syndrome is cause by a congenital heart defect that deprives the blood of the necessary amount of oxygen. The success of the operation brought Taussig recognition as the founder of pediatric cardiology.

Taussig's research spurred the development of many other surgical treatments for common heart disorders. Her book Congenital Malformations of the Heart, 2 vol. (1947, rev. ed. 1960-61), contains a comprehensive description of a number of specific heart defects and elaborates a wide array of diagnostic tools, techniques, and findings. In 1962-63 Taussig played a key role in alerting American physicians to the dangers of thalidomide, a tranquilizing drug whose use had produced large numbers of deformed newborns in Europe. Her prompt actions prevented a recurrence of the tragedy in the United States. Taussig taught at Johns Hopkins University from 1930 to 1963, becoming a full professor there in 1959. She died on May 20, 1986 in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.



To this day, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig is known as one of the most
influential and pioneering women in medicine. She is considered the founder
of pediatric cardiology, the study of heart disease in children, yet so few
people know who she was or what she represented during a period when it was
almost impossible for a woman to become a doctor.

If you had met Helen Taussig in her later years, she would have greeted you
with warm blue eyes and her bright smile. A strong and slender woman, she
might have seemed somewhat shy at first. But her gentle voice so full of
enthusiasm soon would have dispelled any doubt that she was a truly special
person. She hated being called "doctor" Taussig, and she always reminded
people, "You must learn to call me Helen." Yet through her modesty, you
could see that she was a true fighter. Indeed, it was her unrelenting
determination that allowed her to touch the lives of millions of children by
solving the mystery of the so called "blue babies". What are blue babies,
the children whom Helen Taussig called her little "crossword puzzles"? Let's
start from the beginning.

Nothing ever came easily for young Helen. Born on May 24, 1898, in Cambridge
Mass., Helen Taussig was the youngest of four children. Helen was always a
frail and sick child. Back in those days, there were many dangerous
diseases, and Helen was infected with one called tuberculosis. Because of
her illness, Helen was forced to skip many days at school. To make matters
worse, she was found to have a reading disability called dyslexia. To the
dismay of her father, Helen's report cards were never good.

Luckily for Helen, her father had much patience. In addition, he was highly
regarded as a renowned Harvard economist and an advisor to President Woodrow
Wilson. Helen spent many hours with her father, going through lessons in
math, science, and most importantly, reading. Often times her lessons ended
in frustration and tears, as Helen, because of her dyslexia, would read all
the words backwards!

Helen also spent much time with her mother whom she loved very much. Mrs.
Taussig always had complete confidence in young Helen, never doubting that
she would grow up to be a strong and brilliant woman. Little did she know of
Helen's troubles in school however, for Mr. Taussig never told her.
Unfortunately, Helen's mother was also always very sick. She was almost
bedridden and needed constant attention. Mr. Taussig thought that it would
be too much of a stress to burden her with the news of Helen's shortcomings.

In spite of her poor performance, not once did Helen' s father show any
disappointment. Young Helen, on the other hand, felt more and more
frustrated. With each passing day she fell further behind in school. Even
worse was seeing how her classmates were able to read such interesting books
and fun stories. Helen was determined to catch up one day.

However Helen did have many pleasant times as a child. She especially
enjoyed the summer months spent at the family's cottage in Cape Cod. Every
morning after breakfast, Helen would go down to the ocean to search for sea
creatures. This was because Mr.Taussig insisted that he be left alone to his
own work in the morning and Helen's lessons never began before noon. But
after lunch was over, the rest of Helen's day was devoted to study and
helping Mrs. Taussig.

Then came a very sad day for Helen. She was only eleven years old when her
mother suddenly developed a fever and became more and more ill. The doctors
were puzzled and tried desperately to help her. But despite their efforts
Helen's mother could not fight the illness. Young Helen was grief stricken
when her mother passed away. It wasn't until later that the doctors found
that she too had tuberculosis and suddenly developed pneumonia. Helen, like
the doctors, felt angry at how little was known about helping people who
were sick. Nonetheless, Helen admired those doctors who had tried their best
to help her mother, if only by holding hands. From that time onward, Helen
dreamed of one day being able to help those, who like her mother, were
suffering from illness. Perhaps, thought Helen, she could become a doctor.
Helen always remembered her mother's great courage which served as an
inspiration in years to come.

Helen knew she had to improve in school. Despite her difficulties with
dyslexia and after many long hours of practice and help from her father, she
became an excellent reader. Helen gradually became a better student, and
eventually she found herself at the top of her class. Having overcome her
difficulties with learning to read, Helen was determined to realize her
dream of becoming a doctor.

Ultimately, Helen was accepted into college at Radcliffe college. After two
years at Radcliffe she transferred to the University of California where she
finished her degree in May of 1921. Just as she had hoped, Helen found that
she loved the sciences, and with her curious and insightful mind, she made
top honors in all her classes. Upon graduation she wanted to take her
education a step further, unlike most women at the time. Upon her return
home from college, she wanted to become a doctor more than anything else.

Helen found little support. At that time, there were few medical schools in
America that accepted women at all. Even Helen's father, a professor at
Harvard University, assured her that the Harvard Medical School was not
about to make any exceptions. Most women back then were expected to get
married and "settle down" without ever pursuing their interests. Helen's
father advised her to look into a career in public health since it was much
more suitable for a woman. He suggested that she make an appointment to see
a very important man named Dr. Rosenau who was the dean of the Harvard
School of Public Health. Helen felt deeply disappointed. But what else could
she do? She had to listen to her father.

On the morning of her interview with Dr. Rosenau, Helen nervously dressed
herself in her most professional clothes. She was very courteous during her
interview and spoke with Dr. Rosenau about the field of public health. But
when she showed her desire to study at the school, the reply she received
was both shocking and insulting. She was told that because she was a woman,
she would be allowed to study public health at the school but would never be
granted a degree. Helen felt infuriated. She could no longer hide her
feelings. Boldly, Helen asked, "Dr.Rosenau, who is going to be such a fool
as to spend two years studying . . . and not get a degree?"

The dean of the school merely looked at her smugly and replied, "No one, I

Helen quickly responded, "Dr. Rosenau, I will not be the first to disappoint

Helen returned home that day in tears. She felt cheated and angry at how
unfairly she was treated simply because she was a woman. Helen realized then
that, regardless of what others said, even her father, she had to pursue her
own goals.

Helen started by going back to school. She enrolled in a course of anatomy
at Boston University. This was the very beginning of Helen's special
interest in the heart. Under the guidance of her professor, Dr. Alexander
Begg, Helen was awed by the heart's complexity. The structure of the heart
was exciting, with its valves and chambers. It seemed a true miracle of
nature and a work of art to young Helen.

Dr. Begg was greatly impressed with Helen. She was always curious and able
to make clever observations. He knew that Helen wanted to become a physician
and advised her to apply to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in
Baltimore, which had just started accepting women. Unfortunately, the school
was highly competitive, and even Helen was sure she would not be accepted.
But Dr. Begg had confidence in Helen and gave her his highest

Shortly thereafter in the spring of 1923, to Helen's surprise and joy, she
received a letter of acceptance into the medical school. Helen was thrilled,
for at last she was pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. Little did she
know, this was just the beginning of her struggle.

Helen began medical school at Johns Hopkins University at the age of
twenty-five in 1923. Many times, she felt an extra pressure to perform well.
As a woman, she knew that everyone - the teachers as well as her classmates
- was watching how she did. But ultimately she proved herself as a capable
student by being accepted into the medical school honor society. Helen was
so motivated that in addition to her usual studies, she continued her
research on the heart. Helen Taussig's time in medical school was long and
tiring with many sleepless nights. But soon, before she knew, four years of
study were coming to an end. Graduation day was filled with triumph and
glory for Helen when the dean of Johns Hopkins Medical School called her
forward and presented her diploma with the words "Helen B. Taussig. .
.Doctor of Medicine". At last, in the face of the biases of so many, Helen
Taussig had fulfilled her dream. Thrilled with the idea of finally being
able to work with her own patients, Helen was anxious to cure them all of
their problems. She was sure that better times were ahead.

It just so happened that because of her many years of research, Helen knew
more about the heart than any of the new young doctors. Unfortunately, this
meant that she was chosen to be in charge of the newly formed heart clinic
for children - a job which nobody wanted. Why was this such an undesired
position? The Pediatric Cardiology Clinic was the place where children born
with heart disease were cared for. These unfortunate children were all very
sick with a disease that was thought to be incurable. The clinic was a sad
and gloomy place down in the basement of the hospital.

This was the setting of Helen Taussig's first assignment as a doctor after
so many years of struggle and training. It was her job to care for these
children who were ignored by all the other doctors. It was in this clinic
that Helen Taussig came to love and learn about the children known as the
blue babies. This name came from the color which these children turned
because of their diseased hearts. Worse was the fact that the blue babies
were always out of breath and could never play like normal children.

Helen Taussig saw hundreds of blue babies in her clinic. But unlike many
who might have felt resentful working in such a hopeless situation, Helen
Taussig went about her work with dignity and compassion. One by one, Dr.
Taussig treated each of the blue babies as if it were her own child. She
studied all the patients meticulously, calling them her little "crossword
puzzles", for so perplexing was their mystery - why did their hearts make
them turn blue? So touching were these children, each of them wanting only
to play like a normal child, but crippled by the constant smothering feeling
. Sadly, as quickly as Dr. Taussig could develop a bond with her beloved
children, they would pass away before her eyes. Alone in her small dark
clinic, late at night, there were times when even Dr. Taussig was overcome
with frustration.

Years went by at the Cardiac Clinic, and Dr. Taussig continued to search
desperately for some way to help her children. With the introduction of more
advanced x-ray machines, Helen Taussig started to notice some interesting
patterns in her blue babies. One day, she noticed something that nobody had
ever realized before.

How could it be, wondered Helen, that some blue-babies lived longer than
others? While some blue-babies died after only a few days, others lived for
months and even years.

Helen Taussig knew that all babies were born with hearts that were slightly
different from grown-ups. The most important difference was a very special
blood vessel called the ductus arteriosus. Helen knew that this blood vessel
normally closed by itself after birth. She also knew that the timing of when
the ductus closed varied between people. By using her stethescope, she could
tell when a child's heart was making the change towards becoming adult-like.

Helen Taussig noticed that among her blue babies, those who were least ill
seemed to have a ductus which stayed open longer. In addition, she saw that
these same children rapidly got worse when the ductus began to close.

Over time, Helen gradually began to understand the mystery behind the blue
baby syndrome. In normal babies, the heart pumped blood to the lungs where
contact with air would change the blood's color to bright red, and the
babies were therefore pink. Since blood turns blue when there is no oxygen
in it, this explained the color of the blue babies. Helen then concluded
that the blue babies were born with hearts unable to pump blood to the lungs
to gather air. This also explained why the blue babies were always so short
of breath.

Some blue babies were able to live longer by chance because their ductus
arteriosus stayed open and was acting as a bridge letting blood past the
malformed part of the heart and into the lungs by a separate pathway. This
was a revolutionary idea, and Dr. Taussig immediately set out to put it to
practical use.

Like most new ideas, Dr. Taussig's met with much skepticism and opposition.
She reasoned that if the ductus arteriosus could be kept open or if an
artificial pathway could be constructed, the blue babies would get blood to
the lungs and do much better.

She soon learned of a surgeon named Dr. Gross who had many years of
experience doing operations on the ductus arteriosus. It just so happened
that Dr. Gross was working in Boston, near her home town in Massachusetts.
Since Helen's father was getting older and had recently become sick, she was
considering moving back home from Johns Hopkins. If she could work with Dr.
Gross, she would be able to try her idea and also be near her father. She
approached Dr. Gross with her idea of constructing a new ductus arteriosus
for the blue babies. Upon hearing Helen Taussig, Dr. Gross found her idea to
be ridiculous. He laughed at Helen and told her that he would never perform
such a silly operation. Furthermore, he added that Helen should not return
to Boston where she would not be tolerated. "Stay where you are wanted," he
said to her.

Again, Helen Taussig found herself in the position where she had been so
many times before: facing the odds, fighting for years to prove herself to
those who had no faith in her abilities, either because she was a woman, or
because doctors thought the blue babies were truly hopeless.

Helen Taussig did not give up. She couldn't let all her pitiful little
"crossword puzzles" down, for they were still helplessly dying. She returned
to Johns Hopkins and waited. She waited for the arrival of Dr. Alfred Blalock.

Dr. Blalock, like Dr. Gross, was interested in surgery of the ductus
arteriosus. In the fall of 1942 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Helen Taussig
quietly watched as Dr. Blalock successfully performed surgery. At the end of
the operation, as he was exiting the operating room, Dr. Taussig walked up
to Dr. Blalock and commented,

"I stand in awe and admiration of your surgical skill, but the really great
day will come when you build a ductus for a child . . . "

Dr. Blalock, who had heard of Helen Taussig's ideas, knew immediately what
she meant. He looked at Helen Taussig respectfully and answered,

"When that day comes, this will seem like child's play."

Dr. Blalock took Helen Taussig seriously, and from that day on, they worked
as a team in the laboratory.

Research was slow and frustrating. Day and night, almost by trial and error,
they worked to perfect an operation which would allow blood to reach the
lungs. In the meantime, children continued to succumb. Nearly two years went
by before they developed an operation which might work.

Finally, in the autumn of 1944, the first child to undergo the blue baby
operation was chosen. The child was a boy who had recently begun to worsen.
He was deeply blue and could hardly eat without gasping for air. Dr. Taussig
feared that the end was near.

Helen couldn't wait any longer. Though they were still working on some last
minute refinements, Helen Taussig convinced Dr.Blalock that they should
proceed without delay.

Although it was a desperate attempt, on November 29th 1944, the little blue
boy was given a second chance at life. That morning, the child lay in his
bed while his parents, in tears, kissed him for perhaps the very last time.
He was then wheeled down the long white corridors of the Johns Hopkins
Hospital and into the operating room. At first glance the boy was terrified.
Everyone in the room was wearing surgical masks, robes, and rubber gloves.

The operation began, and hours passed while Dr. Blalock's hands skillfully
worked: cutting, sewing, placing damps, and positioning the shunt which would
act as an artificial ductus to deliver blood to the child's lungs. Everyone
in the room felt tense, including Dr. Taussig. Nobody dared speak, and the
only sounds were of the cold surgical tools clanging against each other.
Finally, everything was in place. Everyone held their breath as Dr. Blalock
slowly removed the last clamp.

At that moment, a sudden rush of blood filled the child's lungs for the
first time in his life. . . someone in the room shouted, "He's a lovely
color now!" Helen Taussig walked to the head of the table and saw the boy's
beautiful pink face, his rose-colored cheeks and cherry red lips. Shortly
thereafter, the child woke up in the operating room. He was no longer
gasping for air and he asked if he could get up to see his parents. In the
words of Helen Taussig herself, "We knew we had won."

Indeed, at the age of forty-six, Dr. Taussig had triumphed. The news spread
fast. Soon, there were people from all over the world flooding into her
small basement clinic with their sickly blue babies. By the hundreds they
were saved. Dr. Taussig and Dr. Blalock also made trips throughout the
world, bringing the gift of life to blue babies everywhere.

In 1946 Dr. Taussig was finally recognized for her devotion to her
profession and given a promotion at Johns Hopkins. But in spite of all she
had done, Helen Taussig never relaxed in her crusade to help sick children.
In 1947 she published her textbook Congenital Malformations of the Heart, a
true masterpiece containing over 600 pages of information which she had
gathered over a ten year period. Her book was a landmark in pediatric
cardiology which permanently laid to rest the mystery of the blue babies.

Throughout the years,Helen Taussig continued to live her life to the
fullest. She was an optimistic woman, always thinking of ways she could make
her world better. At a time in life when most people would have rested on
their earlier accomplishments, Helen Taussig seemed tireless. She remained
active as a prominent voice in the medical community, and her contribution
to world health extended well beyond the scope of heart disease.

Dr. Taussig's next great challenge came in the early 1960's when an outbreak
of a disease called phocomelia occurred throughout Europe. This was a
horrible condition in which children were born with malformed arms and legs.
When Dr. Taussig heard about this she new that it was a serious emergency.
She immediately flew to Europe where she traveled to many hospitals,
observing the situation first-hand. At that time, there was some evidence
that the cause of phocomelia might be a medicine called Thalidomide. This
was a kind of sleeping pill which was supposedly safe in adults and
children, but nobody knew what it did when taken by pregnant women.By the
end of her tour through Europe, Dr. Taussig was convinced that the sleeping
pill was causing the birth defects and that more people had to be warned.
She returned to the United States where she reported her findings to the
medical community and to the Food and Drug Administration. This time, Helen
met little opposition. The U. S. Government as well as doctors throughout
America took her recommendations seriously, and the use of the sleeping pill
by pregnant women was stopped. Thanks to Helen Taussig's watchful eye, the
catastrophe of phocomelia was avoided in the United States.

All of Helen Taussig's awards and honors could fill many pages. Looking back
on how she first struggled to become a doctor, it's ironic that she was
awarded honorary degrees of Doctor of Science from seventeen universities
around the world. She was especially pleased when one of those places was
Harvard University, which had closed its doors to her years before because
she was a woman. In September 1964, Dr. Taussig was recognized by President
Lyndon B. Johnson who awarded her the Medal of Freedom. A year later, she
was appointed the first woman President of the American Heart Association.

Yet one of Helen Taussig's greatest pleasures was the reward she found in
teaching. Young doctors from all over America came to spend one or two years
with the famous Helen Taussig to be trained in pediatric cardiology. In
turn, she watched as her students became prominent doctors themselves,
setting up clinics around the world for children with heart disease.

Helen Taussig often invited her students to vacation at her family cottage
in Cape Cod. It was her favorite way of relaxing and getting to know her
students. She loved tending her garden, and picking wild flowers for
decoration. When not busy writing or giving a lesson, she would gather all
her students and teach them how to cook shellfish, bake muffins, and pick
berries for preserves. Later in the evenings they would all tell stories and
laugh around a warm fireplace with a glass of fine sherry. Helen's students,
who at first were in awe of her reputation, eventually realized that despite
her extraordinary accomplishments, the beauty of Helen Taussig lay in her
friendliness and approachability.

Although Helen Taussig never married, her many students were her family, and
every year she hosted "reunions". Doctors from all over the world would
travel great distances to visit their teacher. In addition, these occasions
were often attended by former patients of Helen's, many of them grown into
adults and leading happy productive lives themselves.

Helen Taussig always remained young in spirit. To the very end of her life,
she loved reading and enjoyed the excitement of always learning more. On May
20, 1986, she was involved in a car accident which took her life. But her
legacy lives on in the lives of the children she saved and in the
inspiration she gave to other women. To this day, the "Helen B. Taussig
Children's Pediatric Cardiac Center" at Johns Hopkins Hospital stands in
memory of the woman who solved the mystery of the blue babies.

 Having struggled with severe dyslexia to complete college, Helen Brooke Taussig (1898-1986) regarded the fact that women were rarely admitted to medical school as just another hurdle to get past. She completed her studies at John Hopkins Medical School—but was then confronted with the loss of her hearing. Determined to practice anyway, and choosing pediatric cardiology as her specialty, she learned to read lips and to "listen with her fingers" to her patients' hearts. This fine-tuned sensitivity, combined with her acute powers of observation, led Taussig to one of the most important discoveries in cardiac care in the twentieth century—and to the beginning of open-heart surgery. Taussig determined that a lack of oxygen was the cause of cyanosis, a congenital disorder that caused babies to die very young. She developed a successful surgical technique to correct the problem, and soon cyanosis was virtually wiped out.



Helen Brooke Taussig

1889- 1986


The first woman to be made a full professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School (1959), Helen Taussig is renowned as the founder of the medical discipline of pediatric cardiology.
She was one of the developers of the "blue baby" operation, a surgical procedure that would correct serious cardiac birth defects in thousands of children. Perhaps her most important contribution to society occurred in the 1960's, when she was instrumental in preventing the thalidomide disaster from occurring in the US, as it had in Europe.

In 1965, Dr. Taussig became the first female president of the American Heart Association.