USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

–Widely considered the founder of modern-day Pediatric Cardiology

–Discovered the cause of “Blue Baby Syndrome” in infants, and helped ban the use of the drug Thalidomide for pregnant women in the U.S.

–Battled dyslexia as a child, and deafness in the later years of her career

For years, physicians were baffled by “Blue Baby Syndrome” – a  mysterious condition in which infants, either at birth or soon after, died after their skin became blue-tinted in color. The prevailing medical thought was that the condition was caused by cardiac arrest. However, a young physician and researcher named Helen Brooke Taussig working with young cardiac patients at Johns Hopkins University’s pediatric heart clinic developed another hypothesis in the early 1940s.  Helen, a cardiologist by training, would determine that “blue babies” actually died of insufficient circulation to the lungs –primarily when the organs, cells and tissues do not receive adequate oxygen. This causes the blood flowing through the body to be blue in color instead of red.  She not only pinpointed the cause, but also helped develop the surgical procedure to correct the problem: the Blalock-Taussig shunt (a  lung bypass technique) which has since saved thousands of children. Later in 1961, after investigating reports of numerous birth defects in England and Germany (in which babies were being born with malformed or missing arms and legs), Helen determined that the cause was the use of the sedative drug Thalidomide, which had been introduced in various countries to combat morning sickness in pregnant women. Backed with ample research findings on the drug, she was able to help prevent Thalidomide from being sold in the United States. She would go on to train a whole generation of pediatric cardiologists, in addition to writing the standard textbook of the field, “Congenital Malformations of the Heart.

To read the full biography of Dr. Helen Taussig and other role models in science and engineering, click here.

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