Helen B. Taussig

Helen Brooke Taussig (May 24, 1898 – May 20, 1986) was an American cardiologist, working in Baltimore and Boston, who founded the field of pediatric cardiology. Notably, she is credited with developing the concept for a procedure that would extend the lives of children born with Tetralogy of Fallot (the most common cause of blue baby syndrome). This concept was applied in practice as a procedure known as the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. The procedure was developed by Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, who were Taussig's colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Helen Brooke Taussig
Born(1898-05-24)May 24, 1898
Died20 May 1986(1986-05-20) (aged 87)
NationalityUnited States
Alma materJohns Hopkins School of Medicine
Known forPediatric cardiology, Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt
AwardsE. Mead Johnson Award (1947)
Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (1954)
John Howland Award (1971)
Elizabeth Blackwell Medal (1982)
Scientific career

Taussig is also known for her work in banning thalidomide and was widely recognized as a highly skilled physician.

Early life and career

Helen Brooke Taussig was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 24, 1898 to Frank W. Taussig and Edith Thomas Guild, who had three other children. Her father was an economist at Harvard University, and her mother was one of the first students at Radcliffe College, a women's college.

When Taussig was 11 years old, her mother succumbed to tuberculosis;[1] Helen also contracted the disease and was ill for several years, severely affecting her ability to do schoolwork. She also struggled with severe dyslexia through her early school years.[2] She graduated from Cambridge School for Girls in 1917, then studied for two years at Radcliffe before earning a bachelor's degree and Phi Beta Kappa membership[3] from the University of California, Berkeley in 1921.

She spent summers as a child in Cotuit, Massachusetts,[4] and later in life had a home there.[5]

Taussig later studied histology, bacteriology, and anatomy at both Harvard Medical School and Boston University, though neither school allowed her to earn a degree.[2] She was particularly discriminated against in her histology class, where she was barred from speaking to her male classmates for fear of "contamination."[6] As an anatomy student at Boston University in 1925, she published her first scientific paper on studies of ox heart muscles with Alexander Begg. At Boston University, with the encouragement of her professor Alexander Begg, Taussig decided to pursue further studies into the heart.[7] She applied to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was accepted as a full-degree candidate with the aid of Begg.[2][7] She completed her MD degree in 1927 at Johns Hopkins, where she then remained for one year as a cardiology fellow and for two years as a pediatrics intern.[8] While at Hopkins, she received two Archibald Fellowships, spanning 1927-1930.[2]

Dr. Taussig became deaf in the later part of her career. She learned to use lip-reading techniques and hearing aids to speak with her patients, and her fingers rather than a stethoscope to feel the rhythm of their heartbeats and to lip read.[8]

Career in medicine and retirement

Taussig began her career after her fellowship in cardiology with a stint as head of a rheumatic fever department. Her early career thus consisted of studying babies with congenital heart defects and rheumatic fever. The latter was a consequence of streptococcus infection.[7] She then was hired by the pediatric department of Johns Hopkins, the Harriet Lane Home, as its chief, where she served from 1930 until 1963. While there, she did extensive work on anoxemia, called "blue baby syndrome", and discovered its cause as a partial blockage of the pulmonary artery either alone or combined with a hole between the ventricles of the infant's heart. More specifically, this blockage was a result of the closure of the ductus arteriosus, which allows the fetal heart to be directly transferred from the pulmonary arteries to the aorta of the fetus.[9] In a fetus, the lungs have not fully developed, so bypassing the left the lungs and left side of the heart allows for a more efficient way to quickly get oxygen from the mother's placenta.[10] Taussig then conveyed these observations to help come up with a solution. She worked with surgeon Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas to develop a surgery to correct the defect, resulting in what is now known as the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas shunt. They first performed the corrective surgery on around 200 dogs but by 1946 began to perform the operation on human babies[11]. Eileen Saxon was the first patient to receive the shunt; she was believed to display a textbook case of "Blue Baby Syndrome" with apparent features such as tinged blue lips. Taussig and colleagues believed that the shunt procedure would be the most successful option of treatment. The procedure, itself, was successful, but Saxon contrived recurrent stenosis, which deteriorated her condition and ultimately lead to her fatality[11]. That year, Taussig became an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; she was promoted to full professor in 1959. In 1947, Taussig published her magnum opus, Congenital Malformations of the Heart, considered to be the genesis of pediatric cardiology as an independent field.[2] In 1954, she received the Albert Lasker award for outstanding contributions to medicine.[12]

Taussig formally retired from Johns Hopkins in 1963, but continued to teach, give lectures, and lobby for various causes. In addition, she kept writing scientific papers (of the 129 total that Taussig wrote, 41 were after her retirement from Johns Hopkins). She advocated the use of animals in medical research and legalized abortion, as well as the benefits of palliative care and hospice.[2][6]

In 1965, Dr. Helen Taussig was the first woman to become the president of the American Heart Association.[12]

Taussig also learned of the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide on newborns and in 1967, testified before Congress on this matter after a trip to Germany where she worked with infants suffering from phocomelia (severe limb deformities). As a result of her efforts, thalidomide was banned in the United States and Europe.[2] In 1977, Taussig moved to a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Ever active, she continued making periodic trips to the University of Delaware for research work. Taussig pioneered the use of x-rays and fluoroscopy simultaneously to examine changes in a baby's heart and lungs in a less invasive manner.[13] At the time of her death, she was working on research involving the genetic basis for certain congenital heart defects with avian hearts.[2]

Taussig's Collaborations

The collaboration that Taussig is primarily known for is that with Alfred Blalock in inventing a technique for the Blue Baby Syndrome. However, throughout her career, Taussig has collaborated with other physicians as well.

Of the many advancements in Taussig's career, she was known to be the director of the Harriet Lane Home facility, or a Pediatric Cardiac Center. Helen B. Taussig succeeded Clifton Briggs Leech[14]. The position stemmed from Taussig's collaboration with Edward Albert Parks. Parks helped establish the first pediatric speciality clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical School. This interaction was the first step in Taussig's journey into the field of pediatric cardiology. Parks sought for more information in developing the clinic from Dr. Edward Carter. Dr. Carter, along with Dr. Benedict Harris and Dr. Helen B. Taussig, assisted Dr. Edward Albert Park in the formation of the clinic [15]. Parks' collaboration with the previously mentioned doctors along with the Rockefeller Institute aided in the formation of the first pediatric cardiac disease unit at Johns Hopkins. This was mainly an outpatient dispensary at Johns Hopkins. Parks then formed a second permanent clinic: Harriet Lane Home. Most pediatric clinics at the time focused on rheumatic fever, the major cause of mortality in children at the time. However, due to Taussig's background, in addition to treating rheumatic fever, Taussig's clinic also specialized in congenital heart deformities[16].

Another collaboration included work on the Taussig Bing Anomaly. This anomaly was first described in 1949 in which Taussig and Bing encountered a case of a heart with subpulmonary ventricular septal defect. They described their case as a transposition of the aorta and a levoposition of the pulmonary artery [17]. This anomaly is largely associated with aortic arch obstruction. the anomaly demonstrates the relationship between major arteries and the transposition of the aorta to the right ventricle in which the pulmonary artery slightly abrogates the high ventricular septal defect[18]. Essentially, this defect is known as a double outlet right ventricle in which the great arteries come together either partially or fully from the right ventricle and is characterized by ventricular septal defects. The current surgical treatment for this includes connecting the left ventricle to systemic circulation by a method in which the semilunar valve is connected to the ventricular septal defect[19].


On May 20, 1986, four days short of her 88th birthday, Taussig was driving a group of friends to vote in a local election when her car collided with another vehicle at an intersection, killing her instantly.[2]


In 1947, Taussig was honored by France as Chevalier (knight) of the Legion d'Honneur. In 1953, she received an honorary medal from the American College of Chest Physicians. She was honored by Italy with the Feltrinelli Award in 1954;[2] that same year, she was given the Lasker Award for her work. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957.[20] In 1963, she was given the Gold Heart Award.[13] She was honored with the American Heart Association's award of merit in 1967. An honorary fellow of the American College of Cardiology in 1960, Taussig was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and the following year became the first female president of the American Heart Association.[2] In 1963, Taussig received the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women. The University of Göttingen named its cardiac clinic in honor of Taussig in 1965.[2]

In 1973, Taussig was elected to the National Academy of Sciences,[21] 27 years after Blalock was elected for their joint work on the Blalock-Taussig shunt.[13] Also in 1973, Taussig was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[22]

Johns Hopkins Hospital named the Helen B. Taussig Congenital Heart Disease Center in her honor, and in 2005 the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine named one of its four colleges in her honor.[23]

Throughout her career, Taussig earned more than 20 honorary degrees.[6] Taussig was a member of several prestigious professional societies during her career. She was a member of the American Pediatric Society, the Society for Pediatric Research, and the American College of Physicians.[13] The American Pediatric Society honored her with the Howland Award in 1971, and Johns Hopkins awarded her the Milton S. Eisenhower Medal for Distinguished Service in 1976.[6]

Film portrayals

In the 2004 HBO movie Something the Lord Made, Dr. Taussig was portrayed by Mary Stuart Masterson.


  1. Yount, Lisa (1994). Contemporary Women Scientists. New York: Facts on File. p. 2. ISBN 0-8160-2895-8. Retrieved 9 November 2016.
  2. Harvey, Joy; Ogilvie, Marilyn (2000). The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92038-8.
  3. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Taussig-Helen-Brooke
  4. Taussig, Helen Brooke (1898–1986) - Dictionary definition of Taussig, Helen Brooke (1898–1986) | Encyclopedia.com: FREE online dictionary Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  5. ENTINE vs. REILLY, MISC 13-477228 Retrieved 2017-05-03.
  6. Callahan, Clara A. (1996). Benjamin F. Shearer; Barbara S. Shearer (eds.). Helen Brooke Taussig. Notable Women in the Life Sciences. ISBN 0-313-29302-3.
  7. Kelly, Evelyn B (December 2000). "Helen Brook Taussig". Science and Its Times. 6: 1900 to 1949: 387–388 via Gale In Context: Global Issues.
  8. "Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig". National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 5 October 2013.
  9. Kiess, Marla (September 2016). "Evolution of the Treatment of Adult Congenital Heart Disease". British Columbia Medical Journal. 58(7): 368–372 via EBSCOhost.
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  11. Vricella, Luca A.; Jacobs, Marshall L.; Cameron, Duke E. (2013). "The birth of a new era: the introduction of the systemic-to-pulmonary artery shunt for the treatment of cyanotic congenital heart disease". Cardiology in the Young. 23 (6): 852–857. doi:10.1017/S1047951113001996. ISSN 1047-9511.
  12. "Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig".
  13. Bailey, Martha J. (1994). American Women in Science. ABC-CLIO. p. 387. ISBN 0-87436-740-9.
  14. Evans WN. Clifton Briggs Leech: first director of the pediatric cardiac clinic at The Johns Hopkins Harriet Lane Home for invalid children. Cardiol Young 2009; 19: 2–9.
  15. Tucker BL, Lindesmith G, Takahashi M. First Clinical Conference on Congenital Heart Disease. Grune & Strantton Inc, New York, 1979; 324–341.
  16. Evans, William N. (2010). "Helen Brooke Taussig and Edwards Albert Park: the early years (1927–1930)". Cardiology in the Young. 20 (04): 387–395. doi:10.1017/S1047951110000259. ISSN 1047-9511.
  17. Taussig, Helen B.; Bing, Richard J. (1949). "Complete transposition of the aorta and a levoposition of the pulmonary artery". American Heart Journal. 37 (4): 551–559. doi:10.1016/0002-8703(49)91133-3.
  18. Luo, Kai; Zheng, Jinghao; Wang, Shunmin; Zhu, Zhongqun; Gao, Botao; Xu, Zhiwei; Liu, Jinfen (2017). "Single-Stage Correction for Taussig–Bing Anomaly Associated With Aortic Arch Obstruction". Pediatric Cardiology. 38 (8): 1548–1555. doi:10.1007/s00246-017-1694-6. ISSN 0172-0643.
  19. Walters, Henry L; Mavroudis, Constantine; Tchervenkov, Christo I; Jacobs, Jeffrey P; Lacour-Gayet, François; Jacobs, Marshall L (2000). "Congenital Heart Surgery Nomenclature and Database Project: double outlet right ventricle". The Annals of Thoracic Surgery. 69 (3): 249–263. doi:10.1016/S0003-4975(99)01247-3.
  20. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
  21. "Helen B. Taussig". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
  22. National Women's Hall of Fame, Helen Brooke Taussig
  23. "College Advising Program". Retrieved 25 July 2012.

Further reading

  • Baldwin, Joyce (1992). To heal the heart of a child : Helen Taussig, M.D. New York: Walker. ISBN 9780802781673.
  • Yount, Lisa (2012). Alfred Blalock, Helen Taussig, and Vivien Thomas mending children's hearts. New York: Chelsea House. ISBN 9781438137025.
  • Reynolds, Moira Davison (2004). American women scientists : 23 inspiring biographies, 1900-2000. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. ISBN 9780786421619.
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