“It is only in our darkest hours that we may discover the true strength of the brilliant light within ourselves that can never, ever, be dimmed.” – Doe Zantamata
Nothing is more befitting than these words to describe the personality of one of America's most famous cardiologists, Helen Brooke Taussig. Taussig belonged to a time when women were forbidden to complete their education and acquire a college degree, let alone pursue a career in medical science. Patriarchy thrived and women were held back. But symbolic of life that thrives out of necessity when stressed, Taussig stupefied the world with the extraordinary strength with which she broke the glass ceiling.
Helen Taussig came from a family of educators; her father was a prominent professor of economics at Harvard, and her mother was one of the first women to receive a degree from Radcliffe College. Her upbringing was vividly reflected in her demeanour and in the way she pursued her passion for medicine in the subsequent years. From the very beginning of her life and career, Taussig’s journey was nothing short of a challenge. She developed tuberculosis at a very tender age and was ill for several years. Her learning ability was severally paralysed because of dyslexia and partial deafness from an ear infection.
Despite these handicaps, Taussig did exceptionally well at school under the guidance of her father. She went on to obtain her B.A. from the University of California in Berkley and expressed her desire to continue her studies in the field of health and medicine at Harvard. The dean of Harvard School of Public Health informed her that while it was okay for her to study, she would not be given a degree as it was against their policies to grant a degree to a woman. Refusing to let the humiliation dampen her dreams, Taussig went ahead and enrolled herself. Such was the situation that she was given a seat all by herself in a corner of the room, from where she viewed all the slides, to avoid ’contaminating’ the gentlemen’s atmosphere at Harvard. Thereafter, she studied anatomy at Boston University, and completed her studies in medical science from John Hopkins University.
Taussig was the first woman to work in the field of cardiology and became known as the mother of paediatric cardiology, rising to prominence after her significant contributions to the understanding of the ‘blue-baby’ syndrome, and for the development of its treatment. It was initially believed that babies with this syndrome died of cardiac arrest. But it was Taussig’s research that confirmed that the syndrome, and its fatality, was caused by insufficient circulation of oxygenated blood. Her personal love and concern for children is what drove and encouraged her to continue her research despite being completely deaf in both ears, her partial deafness having progressed to total. Her research went on to become one of the most significant theories proposed by a medical practitioner.
Taussig derived most of her inspiration from her father but there was another person she greatly admired, along with whom her career advanced and touched greater heights – Alfred Blalock, Hopkins’ chief of surgery. The two developed the Blalock-Taussig shunt, a tube-like device that circulated oxygen infused blood from the lungs to the heart. They performed their first surgery to cure the blue-baby syndrome which, until then, was considered as an untreatable disease of the heart. This laudable effort received global recognition, and the duo became immensely popular for their path breaking discovery.
In 1947, Taussig published her first book, Congenital Malformations of the Heart, which recorded all of her work and struggles in the medical sciences. She was a woman of incredible determination and was a changemaker in the field of medicine. Her innovative and pioneering work encouraged the coming generations, especially women, that wanted to carve a name for themselves in the field of medicine. She received many honours throughout her life but the one she held dearest was the honour of being the woman who led the way for other women out there to realise their dreams.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)