Honored for her contributions to the field of cardiology, Helen B. Taussig was a highly respected medical researcher and practitioner.
A leading authority on congenital heart defects, she helped develop the field of pediatric cardiology and pioneered surgical treatments that have saved countless lives.
Helen Brooke Taussig: Childhood & Early Life
Born in 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Taussig was the daughter of two accomplished Jewish academics. She had three siblings: William, Mary and Catherine.
Her father, Edward Taussig, was a renowned economist at Harvard and her mother, Edith, was one of the first women to study at Radcliffe.
When she was just five years old, Taussig contracted diphtheria, which left her deaf in one ear.
As well as her hearing problem, Taussig struggled all her life with dyslexia, which led her to struggle at school.
When she was just 11, her mother died of tuberculosis.
Despite all this, Taussig went on to follow her mother’s steps and studied at Radcliffe.
However, after two years she went on to pursue graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned her Master’s degree Phi Beta Kappa in 1921.
Unfortunately, when it came time for medical school applications that same year, she was denied entry into Harvard Medical School due to their gender policies at the time; women were not allowed to attend medical school there until 1945.
Like Lise Meitner at the time, being blocked to pursue her doctorate at the university, did not deter Helen Brooke Taussig from pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor.
In 1921, despite being barred from attending medical school proper, Taussig enrolled as a non-credit student taking histology classes at Harvard’s School of Medicine out of sheer determination and passion for studying medicine.
After one year of study under Professor Harvey Allen Cushing (who would later become a famous neurosurgeon), she was encouraged by him to continue her studies on muscle bundles elsewhere. Cushing believed that studying muscle bundles could provide insight into understanding heart problems—the field that would eventually become Taussig’s primary focus .
She took his advice and continued her studies at Boston University’s physiology department before matriculating at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1927 after they finally opened up admission to women two years prior .
During her time there, she worked closely with several professors who helped shape her into an esteemed cardiologist by the time she graduated with honors in 1929 .
Helen Taussig: Medical Career At Johns Hopkins
After completing an internship and residency at Johns Hopkins, Taussig became a faculty member at the university in 1929.
In the 1930s, Taussig began to focus her research on congenital heart defects. She was particularly interested in a condition known as Tetralogy of Fallot, which is a combination of four heart defects that can lead to cyanosis (a bluish tint to the skin caused by insufficient oxygen in the blood).
Taussig was instrumental in developing a surgical procedure known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt, which is used to treat Tetralogy of Fallot and other congenital heart defects.
During World War II, Taussig served as a consultant to the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
After the war, she returned to Johns Hopkins, where she continued to treat patients and conduct research.
In 1947, she helped establish the first division of pediatric cardiology in the United States.
Helen Taussig: Later Life & Death
Taussig retired from Johns Hopkins in 1963, but she continued to consult with doctors and conduct research.
She died in 1986 at the age of 87, in her house in Pennsylvania.
Taussig’s legacy continues to live on through the many lives she saved and the generations of cardiologists she trained. She was a true pioneer in the field of pediatric cardiology, and her work has helped countless children born with congenital heart defects.
Today, the Blalock-Taussig shunt remains an important part of treatment for Tetralogy of Fallot and other congenital heart defects, and Taussig’s work continues to save lives all over the world.
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