Helen Taussig

Just as gender shouldn’t hold anyone back from achieving their dreams of scientific careers, neither should disability. Each week, through our WiSE Wednesday profiles, we bring you the story of a woman overcoming gender discrimination to become a successful scientist. This week’s honoree, Helen Brooke Taussig, also faced additional adversity – dyslexia and (later in life) deafness. Embracing these “disabilities,” she became the “Founder of Pediatric Cardiology” and was influential in convincing the US government to ban the use of thalidomide in pregnant women, an action that doubtlessly prevented congenital malformations in thousands of babies.

Helen Taussig was born in Massachusetts in 1898. Due to her dyslexia, learning to read was a major challenge, but with hard work and tutoring from her supportive father, she mastered the skill. The death of her mother from tuberculosis when Helen was only 11 and her own battle with TB further complicated Taussig’s early life but, determined to receive an education, she obtained a degree from UC Berkeley. Aspiring to become a doctor, she applied to Harvard Medical School, but was denied admission because of her gender. Instead, she attended Boston University and later Johns Hopkins University, where she received her doctorate of medicine. While at Hopkins, Taussig became interested in research into pediatric heart problems, but in her early thirties, she grew deaf. This “disability” had an unexpected benefit – no longer able to rely on listening to patients’ heartbeats with a stethoscope, she developed a compensatory technique in which she analyzed heartbeats with her hands. Using this technique, she discovered that “blue babies” shared similar heartbeat patterns, which she was traced to a lack of oxygenated blood going from the lungs to the heart. This led her to hypothesize that these babies could be treated with a shunt. She brought this idea to Hopkin’s chief of surgery, Alfred Blalock, who worked with her to create the Blalock-Taussig shunt, which has saved the lives of countless babies once considered incurable.

Taussig published an astonishing 129 scientific articles and received numerous honors including the Medal of Freedom, the Lasker Award, and over 20 honorary degrees. Although she formally retired from Hopkins in 1963, she remained active in the scientific and medical communities – for example, in 1967, she testified before Congress on the dangers of thalidomide. In 1965, she became president of the American Heart Association, the first woman to hold the title. She died in a car accident at the age of 87.