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Taussig, Helen (Brooke)

heart medical ‘blue defects

tow sig] (1899–1986) US physician and a pioneer in the treatment of ‘blue babies’.

Helen Taussig was born in Cambridge MA, the daughter of a Harvard professor. She attended Radcliffe College and the University of California, and obtained her MD at Johns Hopkins University medical school in 1927. She joined the faculty in 1930 and took charge of the cardiac clinic of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, remaining there until her retirement in 1963. She specialized in congenital malformations of the heart. In 1959 she became the first woman to be appointed a full professor at Johns Hopkins medical school.

Infants whose skin had a bluish hue caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood were termed ‘blue babies’ and had a restricted and short life. At the time there were few medical remedies for children with congenital heart defects. Deducing that the reason for the lack of oxygen was a blockage or constriction of the artery connecting the heart to the lung, Helen Taussig and Alfred Blalock (1899–1964) devised a procedure, in 1944, to take a branch of the aorta that normally went to the arm and connect it to the lungs. Soon 80% of the operations performed were a success, and a modification of the procedure is still in use today to gain time so that the ‘blue baby’ can reach an age where it is strong enough to withstand the very major surgery needed to provide a long-term solution.

Hearing of the large numbers of babies being born with heart defects in West Germany, Helen Taussig investigated and traced a link with the drug thalidomide taken during pregnancy, widely in use there in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Returning to the USA she reported her findings to medical associations and to the Food and Drug Administration, which had not yet approved thalidomide, and thereby saved American babies from the same fate. For this work she was awarded the President’s Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour.

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