Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris remember Vivien Thomas, who in the '60s ran a research lab at Johns Hopkins Hospital, helping invent surgical techniques — even though he didn't have a medical degree.




Time now for StoryCorps. In the 1960s, Vivien Thomas ran a research lab at Johns Hopkins Hospital helping invent groundbreaking surgical techniques, even though he didn't have a medical degree. Thomas was also a mentor to Black laboratory technicians at Johns Hopkins. Two of them, Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris, came to StoryCorps to remember the man who changed their lives.

FRED GILLIAM: It was mind-boggling. I had no medical experience. And he took me under his wing, and he taught me everything I needed to know. Back then, there was smoking allowed in the buildings, and he would always have his pipe. He'd peep over your shoulder, and he wouldn't hesitate to say, well, you're getting ready to make a mistake. But when he would puff on that pipe, smile and walk out, you knew you were doing your job.

JERRY HARRIS: Yeah. He had patience. He would never raise his voice.

GILLIAM: And he obviously saw something in me that I maybe didn't see in myself. I remember there was one time in the critical part of the operation, a doctor became ill and fainted. Vivien was walking by at the time, and I'm standing there, and he said, well, no, you go ahead and finish (laughter). And I was stunned, but I wasn't shocked. I think that was one of the days that I grew up as a surgeon. He was an excellent mentor, and he was a father figure. The very first car I had purchased, somebody hit me in the rear, and I was without a car for two weeks. So he came by my house every day and picked me up and took me to work. Never accepted a penny.

HARRIS: I think Vivien's greatest accomplishment was just training and mentoring young men. But we weren't appreciated, I don't think. How many people knew that there were 26 Black technicians in that lab and what they were doing?

GILLIAM: You know, I feel blessed and privileged to have been part of his history. If I had the opportunity today, I'd just thank him for being who he was in my life at that time in my life.


MARTINEZ: That's Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris remembering their mentor, Dr. Vivien Thomas. Gilliam later worked for the American Red Cross. Harris stayed at Johns Hopkins as a coordinator in the School of Medicine. Dr. Thomas' pioneering research and innovation helped lay the groundwork for modern heart surgery. In 1976, he received an honorary medical degree from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He died in 1985. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.