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"Contemplating the Subject of Retirement" by Alfred Blalock
Alfred Blalock was a son of the Deep South. His father, George Z. Blalock, was an upper-middle class merchant in Jonesboro, Georgia, and his uncle, Alfred Calvin Blalock, was the local bank president (1). His mother, Martha Davis Blalock, was a distant cousin of Jefferson Davis. After education at the University of Georgia and the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Maryland, Dr Blalock trained in surgery under Dr Barney Brooks as the first surgical resident at the new Vanderbilt University Medical School in Tennessee. He then stayed on Dr Brooks' faculty in the emerging specialty of thoracic surgery. After making important clinical and laboratory contributions in the areas of shock and circulatory physiology with Dr Tinsley Harrison, Dr Blalock assumed the chairmanship of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1940. Preceded by considerable laboratory preparation, Dr Blalock gained international notoriety in 1944 by performing the first subclavian artery to pulmonary artery shunt for Tetralogy of Fallot. However, an equally important contribution was his impact on surgical education at Johns Hopkins Medical School and across the United States, influencing many trainees who went on to productive careers in surgery.
In 1960, Dr Blalock was depressed by the death of his first wife, Mary, and multiple medical ailments. With the goal of cheering him up and also of recognizing his many accomplishments, Dr David C. Sabiston Jr and several of his colleagues on the Johns Hopkins faculty devised a plan for a 60th birthday party. Dr Blalock was told that the party would be attended by former residents, but in fact, most of the prominent surgeons in the world were invited, as they traveled to the annual American Surgical Association meeting. The dinner ultimately was attended by over 500 international medical leaders and their spouses. As a medical student at Johns Hopkins, Dr Sabiston had initially gained recognition by Dr Blalock for learning how to operate the 16-mm movie camera used to film surgical procedures. Knowing that Dr Blalock's humility would have precluded any recording, Dr Sabiston arranged for Dr Blalock's longtime friend and research colleague, Vivian Thomas, to secretly film the speech using a 16-mm camera hidden behind a palm tree.
In the 1970s, Dr Sabiston showed this film several times to the surgical residents at Duke University in North Carolina, but then it was lost. Recently, with the approval of Mrs Sabiston, the film was found in the Duke Archives and converted to digital format. The camera wasn't functioning well, and much of the video was unusable. However, a 10-minute segment on "Contemplating the Subject of Retirement" was edited and is posted here with the goal of illustrating Dr Blalock's exemplary character and personality. His gentle demeanor, sharp wit, and erudition are evident, and they provide us with insight into his persona.
1. Ravitch MM, ed. The Papers of Alfred Blalock. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1966.