June 14, 2002

“Partners” movie explores history, segregation

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Model illustrating activation of PPAR-gamma by agonists that in turn blocks the IL-12-induced activation of JAK-STAT pathway and inhibits Th1 differentiation, CNS inflammation, and demyelination.

“Partners” movie explores history, segregation

“Partners of the Heart,” a one-hour documentary about a medical and social odyssey that started at Vanderbilt in 1930 and grew to global prominence, was screened last Friday at the Nashville Independent Film Festival.

Written, directed and produced by New York-based film maker Andrea Kalin, the movie explores the lives and times of Dr. Alfred Blalock, surgeon savant, and his assistant Vivien Thomas, a black man who remained in the physician-giant’s shadow during a 40-year career.

The film shined a light on Thomas’s contributions. Actor Morgan Freeman movingly narrates the story, describing a young man who grew up in North Nashville. Thomas’ father was a carpenter, and Vivien swung a hammer for years, saving money for college. But in 1929 the stock market crash busted his savings and dashed his hopes of higher education. The next year Blalock, then a young Vanderbilt surgeon, hired the 19-year-old Thomas as a janitor; within a year he was running the lab.

At Vanderbilt in the 1930s the two made the first major stride in shock treatment, explaining that massive blood loss led to the condition. At Johns Hopkins in the 1940s Thomas invented and refined, for Blalock, the first surgical technique to save “blue babies.” It was also the first pediatric heart surgery.

Kalin said the movie “is a window to our country’s social history. Vivien Thomas’ personal triumph sends a message of cooperation and leaves a warning to our society about the risk of discrimination.”

The film mixes period-accurate reenactments with family and official photos and interviews with several prominent surgeons, including Levi Watkins, Vanderbilt’s first black medical school graduate, Denton Cooley, and Alex Haller, a Vanderbilt graduate who followed Blalock to Hopkins. They helped describe the enigmatic character of Thomas, how he was revered for his science, yet segregated by society.

“I’ve been telling Vivien Thomas’s story for 20 years, but I’ve never told it this well,” Dr. Arnold Strauss, professor and chairman of Pediatrics, said after seeing the movie. “It blows me away, the impact this man had on medicine. That was the beginning of heart surgery.”

“Partners of the Heart” will air on TV sometime in 2003 as part of the PBS series “American Experience.” Read more about it at partnersoftheheart.com.