The Founder of Pediatric Cardiology Couldn’t Hear a Heartbeat
Since February is American Heart Month, we thought we would take the opportunity to highlight AAUW’s 1963 Achievement Award winner, Helen Taussig. Who better to commemorate the occasion than the woman who developed the concept for the procedure known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt, which has saved the lives of countless children who had “blue baby syndrome.” Taussig essentially founded the field of pediatric cardiology. But almost more impressive than her work are the obstacles she had to overcome along the way.
Success did not come easily for Taussig. In the early 20th century, it was difficult for women to find a school to seriously study medicine — she ultimately got her medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1927 — and to succeed professionally in the field of medicine. Aside from the sexism, Taussig struggled with severe dyslexia and was largely deaf by the time she had completed medical school. Luckily, she was born into an academic family, and her parents provided extra tutoring to help Taussig overcome her difficulties reading. Her father was famed Harvard economist Frank Taussig, and her mother, Edith Guild, was one of the first students at Radcliffe College.
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While Helen Taussig was able to overcome dyslexia with hard work, her hearing loss forced her to be more creative. Since she wasn’t able to use a stethoscope, Taussig learned to feel the rhythm of the heartbeat through her fingers. This approach was lauded as being even more discerning of heart irregularities than more traditional methods. Further, she learned to use lipreading so that she could understand the needs of her patients. Taussig was not one to let life get in the way of her goals!
In addition to being a pioneer in pediatric cardiology, Taussig, along with Frances Oldham Kelsey, was a major figure in another emerging medical issue of the time: Taussig aggressively addressed the problem of congenital deformities in babies resulting from pregnant women’s use of the drug thalidomide for morning sickness. Investigations that Taussig did on the subject in Germany gave her ground to speak against its use in the United States.
Though it took a while, Taussig received many awards and honors for her work by the end of her career. In 1964 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson, and in 1965 she was named the first woman president of the American Heart Association. Earlier on, in 1947, Taussig was granted the French Chevalier Legion d’honneur for her contributions to medicine. In 1963, she formally retired from Johns Hopkins, where she was the first woman to hold full professorship in the medical school and where the Helen B. Taussig Children’s Congenital Heart Center was named in her honor.
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