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Helen Taussig: The Doctor Who Pioneered Pediatric Cardiology and Saved "Blue Babies"

Dr. Helen Taussig envisioned and helped develop a life-saving operation for the nearly always fatal "blue baby syndrome," saving the lives of tens of thousands of babies.

Dr. Helen Taussig overcame severe dyslexia, partial deafness, and sexism to earn a medical degree and, in the 1940s, she helped develop a life-saving operation for "blue baby syndrome," a birth defect of the heart that had a very high morality rate. Now recognized as the founder of the field of pediatric cardiology, her unique insights on previously incurable babies would go on to change the field of neonatal medicine forever. "To be a leader, you have to recognize where the gaps are," observed Dr. Anne Murphy, a pediatric cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "[Dr. Taussig] recognized there was a gap in caring for these patients with heart defects... and she made the effort to work with others to make a difference."

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 24, 1898, Taussig struggled in her early schooling due to partial deafness due to a childhood ear infection and severe dyslexia. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Taussig was 11; she also contracted the disease and was ill for several years. Despite these challenges, Taussig ultimately exceled at school, graduating from the Cambridge School for Girls in 1917 and earning a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1921.

From a young age, Taussig knew that she wanted to be a doctor, but it was a difficult path for a woman of her day due to systemic sexism. Taussig studied histology, bacteriology, and anatomy at both Harvard Medical School and Boston University, but neither would allow her to complete a degree because she was a woman. When she asked the Harvard dean why anyone would want to attend without the hope of receiving a degree, he replied, "That is what we are hoping." Taussig told him, "Well, I shall not be the first to disappoint you," and left Harvard to attend classes at Boston University. Unfortunately, the school was no more hospitable to women; Taussig was required to sit separately from her male classmates at the back of the lecture halls and was not supposed to speak with them.

With the encouragement of a professor, Taussig transferred to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one of the few medical schools that would grant women degrees at the time. She completed her medical degree in 1927, and then pursued a year as a cardiology fellow and two years as a pediatric intern. In 1930, Taussig was hired as chief of the pediatric department of Johns Hopkins, where she began researching anoxemia, commonly known as “blue baby syndrome.”

Newborns sometimes had blue coloration, indicating a lack of oxygen despite normal breathing; these babies often died very young. Taussig realized that the cause was often a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, a term which refers to several congenital defects that can prevent blood from getting to the lungs to be reoxygenated. As she studied thousands of patients with anoxemia, she noticed that children who also had a second defect, which left a vessel running between the aorta and the pulmonary artery, lived longer than children who didn’t have the second defect.

Taussig proposed that if surgeons could move one of the blood vessels into a new position, "as a plumber changes pipes around," they could allow more deoxygenated blood to get to the lungs, allowing children born with the defect live longer, healthier lives. She worked with John Hopkins' new chief of surgery Dr. Alfred Blalock and his surgical technician Vivian Thomas to create a surgical process to do so; Blalock and Thomas performed the first such operation on a human baby in 1946. The following year, Taussig published her book Congenital Malformations of the Heart, which is considered to be the foundational text of pediatric cardiology as an independent field.

The procedure that Taussig had envisioned was so successful that parents from around the world began bringing their "blue babies" to Johns Hopkins for treatment. By 1951, the team had operated on over 1,000 children with only a five percent mortality rate. The surgery often had an immediate, transformative effect on children; Taussig once reflected: "I suppose nothing would ever give me as much delight as seeing the first patient change from blue to pink in the operating room... bright pink cheeks and bright lips." In 1959, Taussig was awarded a full professorship at Hopkins, on of the first women in history to achieve that rank.

Taussig officially retired in 1963, but continued to teach, lecture and write scientific papers for two more decades; authoring 41 of her 129 scientific papers post-retirement. In 1965, she became the first woman and first pediatrician to be elected head of the American Medical Association. In 1967, after seeing the devastating effects of thalidomide on infants in Germany, she lobbied extensively about the need to stop the drug's pending approval by the FDA, writing widely about its dangers and testifying before Congress.

Taussig was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The medal's inscription read: "Her fundamental concepts have made possible the modern surgery of the heart which enables countless children to lead productive lives." At the time of Taussig's death in a car accident in 1986 at the age of 87, it's estimated that tens of thousands of children's lives had been saved by the shunt procedure that she had envisioned and helped to develop, leaving behind a towering legacy in both medical advancement and lives saved.

Books About Women in Medicine

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Written by: Tanya Lee Stone
Illustrated by: Marjorie Priceman
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Elizabeth Blackwell didn’t want to be a wife, or a teacher, or a seamstress: she wanted to be a doctor! But in the 1830s, that just wasn't something women did. Elizabeth wasn't swayed, though: when people told her she wasn’t smart enough, or strong enough, she knew better. She fought her way past detractors and skeptics to attend medical school, and not only was she the first woman to graduate from a medical degree in the US, she became the first woman to join the UK Medical Register. Her brilliant career would become an inspiration for generations of women after her. With its colorful art and inspiring tone, this is sure to be a favorite for would-be doctors everywhere.

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Amazon.ca
C$19.99 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£10.54 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$29.66 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£11.24 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$29.05 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$11.99 (USD)

Charlotte the Scientist Finds A Cure

Charlotte the Scientist Finds A Cure

Written by: Camille Andros
Illustrated by: Brianne Farley
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Creatures all over the forest are getting sick, and Charlotte the bunny scientist is determined to figure out why! The stumped doctors and scientists are dismissive of her efforts, but she holds firm to her beloved grandfather's assertion that she will "make a real difference in the world." After some patient interviews and a few samples from the outhouse, Charlotte realizes that all the sick animals have been munching on carrots contaminated by 'Funky Forest Fungi.' A quick clinical trial later, and Charlotte has saved the tummies of all her friends! This delightful sequel to Charlotte the Scientist Is Squished celebrates the ability of determined girls to change the world.

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Amazon.ca
C$23.47 (CAD)
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£13.99 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$21.66 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£13.99 (GBP)
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Amazon.com
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Brave Clara Barton

Brave Clara Barton

Written by: Frank Murphy
Illustrated by: Sarah Green
Recommended Age: 5 - 7

As a child, Clara Barton struggled with shyness and fear... but her beloved brother insisted that she would find a way to change the world. When he suffered a terrible injury, Clara helped him recover — and found her life's work. Clara Barton would go on to become a teacher, a nurse on the front lines of the Civil War, and the founder of the American Red Cross. This Step Into Reading level 3 early reader biography of this inspiring role model will encourage young readers to face their own fears and follow their dreams.

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C$6.99 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£5.61 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$12.22 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£4.82 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$11.28 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$4.99 (USD)

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

When Patricia Bath was coming of age, the intelligent young woman was determined to become a doctor, but she had many obstacles in her way: sexism, racism, and poverty all seemed to be working against her. Despite it all, she broke new ground for both women and African Americans in her chosen field of ophthalmology. In 1981, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a quick and nearly painless way to treat cataracts — one which has now been used on millions of patients around the world! This inspiring story from the Amazing Scientists picture book series, which includes a note from Bath herself, highlights the power of fighting for a dream. For another inspiring book about Bath, we recommend Patricia's Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight for ages 5 to 9.

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C$22.72 (CAD)
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£10.99 (GBP)
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A$22.79 (AUD)
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£12.02 (GBP)
The Book Depository
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Amazon.com
$16.38 (USD)

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Written by: Monica Kulling
Illustrated by: Julianna Swaney
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

After Sara Josephine Baker lost her brother and father to typhoid fever, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. But when she graduated in 1898, few people wanted to see a woman doctor, so Dr. Jo took a job in public health working in Hell's Kitchen, one of New York's poorest neighborhoods. She realized that, by improving the health of children, she could improve the health of a whole community. Dr. Jo assigned visiting nurses to new mothers, designed safe infant clothing, set up milk stations, and created training and licensing for midwives — and her work saved over 90,000 children. This picture book biography of a groundbreaking woman in medicine highlights how simple innovations can have an enormous impact.

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Amazon.ca
C$20.56 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£10.68 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$6.65 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£15.99 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$31.23 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$11.99 (USD)

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Written by: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 9 and up

This charmingly illustrated and educational book highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the ancient to the modern world. Full of striking, singular art, this fascinating collection profiles well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, the African-American physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Women in Science celebrates the achievements of the intrepid women who have paved the way for the next generation of female engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more!

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Amazon.ca
C$22.76 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£10.19 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$23.09 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£10.88 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$29.76 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$9.99 (USD)

Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved "Blue Babies" and Changed Medicine Forever

Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved "Blue Babies" and Changed Medicine Forever

Written by: Jim Murphy
Recommended Age: 10 - 14

In 1944, surgeon Alfred Blalock became famous around the world for performing an operation that repaired a baby's heart defect. The surgery to address "blue baby syndrome" was groundbreaking, and it paved the way for open-heart surgery. But Blalock was only one of the people responsible for this pioneering operation, which was first proposed by Helen Taussig, the founder of the field of pediatric cardiology, and developed by Vivien Thomas, Blalock's African-American lab assistant. In this gripping narrative, the stories of Blalock, Thomas, and Taussig come together to show how their work changed medicine forever.

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C$24.14 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£14.71 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$36.91 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£13.98 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$33.50 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$14.15 (USD)

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Written by: Susan M. Latta
Recommended Age: 12 and up

From 19th century battlefield nurses Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, to modern medical miracle workers like Dr. Helen Taussig and Dr. Catherine Hamlin, women have long played a key role in medicine — but their contributions have often been downplayed or forgotten. In this fascinating new title from the Women of Action series, readers get to meet some of the daring and trailblazing women of the past two hundred years of medicine. These women defied prejudices and expectations, created incredible new procedures, and devoted their lives to healing people around the world.

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Amazon.ca
C$26.99 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£13.19 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$38.21 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£13.68 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$40.20 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$19.99 (USD)

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Written by: Rachel Swaby
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Learn the often neglected stories of women in science with these 52 engaging capsule biographies! Spanning centuries of courageous thinkers, author Rachel Swaby celebrates women whose specializations range from biology to physics to engineering, from famous names like Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace to lesser-known women like Stephanie Kwolek and Chien-Shiung Wu. While each individual's biography runs for only a few pages, Swaby has done an impressive job of conveying the essence of each scientist's life and work into the profiles, while her light tone urges readers to learn more about each of these groundbreaking women.

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Amazon.ca
C$20.09 (CAD)
Amazon.co.uk
£9.45 (GBP)
Amazon.com.au
A$25.16 (AUD)
The Book Depository
£10.91 (GBP)
The Book Depository
A$25.74 (AUD)
Amazon.com
$14.59 (USD)

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