Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas Book Poster Image
Compelling bio of African-American heart surgery innovator.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Explanation of medical condition "tetralogy of Fallot" and surgical procedure to treat it. Biology of shock and low blood pressure. Medical vocabulary: "suture," "cardiology," "shunt," "artery," "incision," "spirometer," and "blood-gas manometer." Job category of research technician. Examples of segregation.

Positive Messages

Pursue the work you love even if there are serious obstacles. You can excel at your work even if others discourage or disparage you.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Vivien Thomas succeeded as a medical pioneer despite all odds. He never went to medical school or college. He was hired as a research technician but listed and paid as "janitor." He wasn't allowed to perform the surgery he invented, and his work wasn't credited for many years. Still, he pursued the work he loved and developed groundbreaking medical procedures.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas is a picture book biography of an African-American man who pioneered open-heart surgery for infants but had to wait years to receive recognition. It explains the heart condition "tetralogy of Fallot" and the medical procedure Thomas developed to address it. It also sets his work in its social context, describing disturbing instances of racial prejudice faced by Thomas in the first half of the 20th century. Expect complex subject matter and longer blocks of text than most picture books. This is a strong and informative bio of an impressive role model for kids dreaming of a career in research or medicine and a great choice for families looking for STEM books.

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What's the story?

TINY STITCHES; THE LIFE OF MEDICAL PIONEER VIVIEN THOMAS tells the story of this early 20th-century African-American who distinguished himself in medicine. Son of a Nashville carpenter, he worked with his father to save money for college and medical school but lost it all in the stock market crash. He got a job as a medical technician at Vanderbilt University and excelled at research, though he discovered his job description was "janitor" and had to fight to earn as much as his white coworkers. When he went to work at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he had to eat in the "colored" cafeteria, he pioneered surgery to help "blue babies," infants with a heart condition called "tetralogy of Fallot." Never allowed to perform the surgery himself, Thomas coached others who were nominated for the Nobel Prize. Twenty-six years after the first operations, Thomas was publicly honored for his work saving thousands born each year with this life-threatening heart condition.

Is it any good?

This important bio of an African-American medical pioneer who developed open-heart surgery for babies celebrates his impressive accomplishments while being honest about the prejudice he faced. Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas spotlights the life of medical researcher Vivien Thomas, who dreamed of going to medical school but instead landed a job as a research technician at Vanderbilt University, then followed his mentor to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore where he developed a procedure for operating on infants with defective hearts. Though he wasn't credited publicly for many years and never got to perform the surgery himself, his groundbreaking contribution was eventually acknowledged.

Colin Bootman's vivid, realistic, artful illustrations give kids a feel for Thomas' era as well as the science. The text and afterword explain the medical condition and procedure clearly for the book's intended age group, and Thomas' story, inspiring and heartbreaking at once, provides a powerful model of a man who strove to do the work he excelled at despite serious obstacles.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the obstacles Thomas faced in Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. How did he overcome them? Was he able to achieve all he'd dreamed of?

  • What kinds of prejudice did Thomas encounter growing up in the early part of the 20th century? How are things different now? What seems the same?

  • How would you feel if you accomplished something important and others got the credit? How do you think Thomas felt? What do you think motivated him to continue his work?

Book details

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For kids who love science

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