April 1, 2021

Dixie Place renamed in honor of Vanderbilt surgical pioneer Vivien Thomas

Through a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine student-led effort, Dixie Place, the city street that runs between the Medical Center’s Central Garage and the Oxford House building on 21st Avenue South, is being renamed Vivien Thomas Way.


by Kathy Whitney

Through a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine student-led effort, Dixie Place, the city street that runs between the Medical Center’s Central Garage and the Oxford House building on 21st Avenue South, is being renamed Vivien Thomas Way.

Vivien Thomas

Thomas’ history with Vanderbilt and contributions to cardiac surgery are well documented. A Nashville native, he secured a job as a Vanderbilt laboratory assistant with Alfred Blalock, MD, in 1930, rapidly mastered complex surgical techniques and research methodology, and began doing the work of a postdoctoral researcher in Blalock’s lab.

Blalock and Thomas began experimental work in vascular and cardiac surgery, and when Blalock was offered the position of Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1941, he insisted that Thomas accompany him. Thomas was charged with the task of creating a ‘blue baby’-like condition (cyanosis) in a dog, then correcting the condition by means of the pulmonary-to-subclavian anastomosis. In 1944, Thomas stood on a step stool behind Blalock coaching him through the first such procedure in a human.

The process to change the name of Dixie Place was borne of discussions that the current second-year medical students had with their advisory college mentors during the summer when they, along with the rest of the country, witnessed widespread civil unrest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. Many expressed a desire to help affect change.

Advisory mentor Walter Clair, MD, MPH, addressed the class via Zoom and encouraged them to think about how they could merge what they were doing as medical students with their desire to influence positive change, without disrupting their educational journey.

“I suggested to them, ‘if you want to do something, I have been driving to Vanderbilt and parking in Central Garage for years; I come down 21st Avenue, and the last stoplight I have to get through is where one takes a left on Dixie Place to get to the garage. If you want to do something, change the name of that sign!’” said Clair, professor of Medicine and Vice Chair for Diversity and Inclusion in the Department of Medicine.

The students liked the idea and proceeded to form a committee to explore options for renaming the street, with input from Clair, Matt Scanlan, JD, senior director of VUMC’s Office of State Government and Community Affairs, Andre Churchwell, MD, Chief Diversity Officer, Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, Vice President for Health Equity, and John Manning, PhD, MBA, Chief Operating Officer.

“With support from Dean Jeff Balser we agreed that having the students lead the charge was a positive way to harness their energy and teach them how to change things constructively,” Clair said.

To choose the street’s new name, students organized a collective effort among representatives from the African American, Latinx, Pride, and Veteran employee resource groups, the Minority Housestaff for Academic and Medical Achievement (MHAMA), faculty advisors, deans, and administrators to develop key values and principles that guided the nomination process.

“We appreciated the opportunity to remove this daily reminder of the Confederacy and racism from our medical campus. We recognized that as students, our time at Vanderbilt may be transient, and we wanted to ensure that the voices of others who have worked at Vanderbilt long before us and may remain long after us were included in making this change,” said second-year medical student Alex Lupi.

They presented their top choices to COO John Manning who worked with Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, VUMC President and CEO and dean of the School of Medicine, to ultimately choose to rename the street in honor of Vivien Thomas, LLD.

After an approval process involving the Metro Nashville Government, the Metro Council officially approved renaming the street, said Scanlan.

“As an aspiring surgeon, the story of Vivien Thomas is a major inspiration for me. That he became a pioneer of cardiac surgery, even with no formal medical degree and despite the constant obstacle of racism, demonstrates an ingenuity, perseverance, and excellence that is rarely seen. By renaming Dixie Place in honor of him, we can recognize a truly exceptional figure in Vanderbilt’s history. This street sign at the entrance of our medical campus will bear the name of a man who will serve as a source of pride to students, faculty, staff and patients for years to come,” said second-year medical student Kayvon Sharif.

Clair agreed the student-led social justice effort will stand the test of time.

“Our students are only going to be with us for four to five years, but they will be alumni for decades, and won’t it be nice for them to come back to their 10th or 25th Vanderbilt reunion with their children and grandchildren and point to the street sign and say, ‘See that sign over there? It used to be called Dixie Place, but we changed that. Let me tell you how.’”

Photo by Susan Urmy