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Helen Brooke Taussig, pioneer of paediatric cardiology

"To be a leader, you have to recognize where the gaps are" Dr. Anne Murphy

Early Life and Education

Helen Brooke Taussig is born on the 24th of May 1898, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the youngest of a family of four children born to Frank William Taussig and Edith Thomas Guild. Helen Brooke Taussig comes from a family of distinguished academics and professionals. Her father is a well-known professor of economics at Harvard University. Her mother is a biologist who is the first female biologist to receive a degree from Radcliffe College. Helen’s paternal grandfather, William Taussig, helps to establish The William Taussig School in Saint Louis, Missouri, to provide care for kids with impaired eyesight.

Helen Brooke Taussig begins her education at the Cambridge School for Girls. In 1917, she joins Radcliffe College to further her studies, following in her mother's footsteps. After two years, she enrols at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduates in 1921. Helen Brooke Taussig wants to study medicine, but Harvard and Boston University do not allow women to join medical school, so she can only attend courses in anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. In 1924, she enrols in the medical school at Johns Hopkins University, one of the few universities accepting women to attend medical courses, and she earns her M.D. degree in 1927. During these years, Helen Brooke Taussig grows an interest in cardiology. She spends most of her time working on her research and clinical practice.


Helen Brooke Taussig applies for an internship in medicine at Johns Hopkins University in order to complete her practical training, but she is unsuccessful because it is a competitive process granted to only one woman per year. Since the medical internship has been filled, she instead succeeds in securing an internship in paediatrics. In 1930, she is appointed to the paediatric cardiac department at Johns Hopkins. Over the course of her 57-year career in the field of paediatrics, Helen Brooke Taussig serves as an instructor in paediatrics from 1930 to 1946, an associate professor from 1946 to 1959, a professor of paediatrics from 1959 to 1963 and a professor emeritus from 1963 to 1986.

In her paediatric practice, Dr Helen Brooke Taussig frequently comes across babies with a specific type of congenital heart malformation appearing with bluish skin due to a decrease in blood flow to their lungs. This congenital heart defect called baby blue syndrome can cause lifelong disability or death, and there is no treatment available. Dr Helen Brooke Taussig’s research enables an in-depth analysis of the pathology of congenital heart defects, revealing the reason causing the symptoms, how to diagnose them and how to correct them. Inspired by previous heart surgeries performed by Dr. Robert Gross and Dr. John Hubbard, she comes up with a creative and bold idea to fix the congenital cardiovascular defects resulting in a low blood oxygen level. Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig shares her thoughts with Dr. Alfred Balock, chief of surgery and heart surgeon at Johns Hopkins, and convinces him to help her to turn her conceptual idea into a concrete process to treat patients with congenital heart defects. Dr. Balock, with the help of his experimented technician, Vivien Thomas, practice the surgical procedure on animal models, over a period of three years, before attempting this procedure on the infant. In 1944, the surgical technique, named “Blalock-Taussig shunt”, is successfully carried out on Eileen Saxon, a 15-month-old kid suffering from blue baby syndrome. Following this success, further surgeries are performed on infants with this specific heart defect saving their lives. From 1945, Dr. Taussig and Dr. Balock shared their results in The Journal of the American Medical Association and several lectures around the world. Since then, this surgery procedure is currently used with slight modifications to the original technique. In 1947, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig publishes a textbook “Congenital Malformations of the Heart” compiling her observations on congenital heart defects.

One of the other famous contributions of Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig to medical science is her investigation of the morning sickness drug called thalidomide. Strikingly, her findings reveal a positive correlation between limb malformations in newborns and thalidomide taken by pregnant mothers in Europe. She widely communicates her observations to raise awareness in the public sphere, organisations and governments. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a federal agency of the Department of Health and Human Services in the USA, bans the use of the drug Thalidomide in the USA and additional governmental laws are implemented to thoroughly test drugs before making them available to the market.

In 1963, Dr Helen Brooke Taussig retires at the age of 65. However, she is granted an honorary position and she pursues her academic work on heart defects. From 1971 to 1977, she publishes several papers addressing the health outcomes of patients following a Blalock–Taussig shunt. Dr Helen Brooke Taussig dies in a car accident at the age of 79, on the 21st of May 1986, 3 days before her birthday.

Acknowledgement of her accomplishments

Throughout her career, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig obtains international and national awards for her contributions to medicine. She receives the French Legion of Honour (1947), Passano Award (1948), the Lasker award (1955). In 1964, she receives the prestigious Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. She is also the first woman to be appointed professor at Johns Hopkins University College of Medicine after beginning as an instructor.

Challenges and difficulties during her career

Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig faces different challenges throughout her life. As a child, she has trouble in spelling, writing and reading at school due to her dyslexia. Her father gives her learning support to help her to face her difficulties. In her thirties, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig suffers from an ear infection causing severe hearing loss making it difficult to use her stethoscope to listen to the heart. She creatively overcomes this challenge, by learning to use her fingertips to feel the rhythm of babies’ heartbeats. Additionally, she also develops the ability to lip-read, making it easier for her life to follow conferences or discussions. Although coming from a highly educated family, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig encounters barriers as a medical student. As a young adult woman, she is denied to access medical school at Harvard and Boston University. Moreover, the number of medical internships available for women is limited. She misses out on promotions at Johns Hopkins. She waits 16 years before being promoted to associate professor. However, with the support of her mentors and fellows, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig becomes a pioneer of paediatric cardiology. Passionate, hardworking, and eager to save lives, Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig manages to make incredible achievements and succeed in breaking barriers for future generations.


J.Van Robay et al.; Facts Views Vis Obyn; helen B. Taussig (1898-1986)

Patricia Meisol; Cardiology; Helen B. Taussig, MD (1898-1986)

Richard D. Mainwaring and Stephanie Mainwaring; Caridology in the young; The retirement years of Doctor Helen B. Taussig: an intersection of art and medicine

Jody Bart; Purdue University Press Book; Women Succeeding in the Sciences: Theories and Practices Across Disciplines

Zillia, N. Evans; Cardiology in the youth; The Blalock-Taussig shunt: the social history of an eponym

Written by Akila. R et edited by Alizée. M

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