Review of "Breakthrough!"

Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine ForeverReview by Catherine Baty

MURPHY, J. I. M. (2019). BREAKTHROUGH!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever.

Breakthrough tells the true story of how Doctors Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig and Laboratory Assistant Vivian Thomas pioneered the surgical procedure to save the lives of children and infants born with heart defects. In the early 1940’s, extensive heart surgery was not something that was done. Dr. Taussig lost many young patients due to “Blue Baby Syndrome”, in which a lack of oxygen to the blood causes the extremities to be dark or blueish. Dr. Blalock was already famous for his research into shock treatments. Dr. Taussig figured out why her patients were dying, but she needed help to research how to fix it. Dr. Blalock was still busy with his research into shock and had Vivian Thomas help him a lot. Thomas was very experienced in research and performing experimental surgeries on animals because Dr. Blalock had trained him. Thomas used what he learned and was able to successfully perform thousands of hours of research on his own. Dr. Blalock depended on Thomas. After many months of experiments, Thomas developed the surgical procedure that would be used to save the “Blue Babies” and taught it to Dr. Blalock. Their first patient came very soon after Thomas had finished developing the initial procedure and Dr. Blalock did not feel ready. He had Thomas in the surgical theatre with him. It was very shocking to others because Thomas was African American. The surgery was a success. Blalock and Taussig went on to write a paper, not naming Thomas, and  the media got wind of the discovery. The doctors were famous and toured around the world giving demonstrations and teaching the procedure. So many people wanted the procedure that Thomas had to find manufactures for the surgical tools he had invented or modified to work on the tiny patients. It was a very long time before Thomas began to get the recognition he deserved, but he became head of the Laboratory and taught his surgical skills to medical students and doctors. Eventually his portrait was hung in the Blalock Building at John’s Hopkins.

This book can either be classified as a social history or a collective biography. I think that it fits as a collective biography because it shares the personal stories of the three people who all had a hand in developing the cure for “Blue Baby Syndrome”. I am reluctant to call this a social history because though time does pass, the central link of “Blue Baby Syndrome” takes place over a relatively short time. I think that social histories tend to discuss movements, and things that take place over a greater number of years that have a lot of nuance to them. Though some non-fiction does not use the traditional storytelling elements, this one does. The plot takes the reader through the history of the procedure to save blue babies. It moves at a good pace, and the reader is never left bored or lost. The structure makes sense as well, with the reader first being given an understanding of Vivian Thomas, then the partnership with Dr. Blalock and third, introducing Dr. Taussig. One worry of reading anything involving: history, a white person and a person of color, is whitewashing or that the white person will be drawn up as a savior for the person of color. This book does not do that. Dr. Blalock seems to be portrayed honestly. He did what was best for himself, with little consideration for Thomas. The good that he did do for Thomas was self-serving. Though they had a good working relationship, “He an Thomas often had a glass of whiskey in the lab after work when they say down to talk over projects,” that relationship is not made to be something it wasn’t, “but they never had a drink together in public.” Dr. Blalock respected Thomas’ skill and intelligence, but he was still a product of his time. The honest way in which their relationship is presented, gives credence to Jim Murphy’s writing. In addition to this, Murphy includes many photographs of people from the book. These pictures help to draw the reader in, and lend to a better understanding of the material. At the end of the book there is a large bibliography, as well as an index which would be very helpful to students using this book for research purposes. As an educator, I would feel inclined to include other writings of his in the classroom. I find this book to be best suited for advanced 5th graders to 8th graders.

“Murphy’s dramatic nonfiction narrative recounting of one of the first open heart surgeries ever performed is not to be missed-even reluctant readers will be hooked.” – Ragan O’Malley, School Library Journal on November 1, 2015

“Murphy assembles a complicated set of facts, strips away the inessentials, and tells a memorable, moving story.” – Contributor, Booklist on December 1, 2015

“Murphy masterfully interweaves discussions of discrimination, the controversy over animal testing, and the background of each protagonist into the main narrative, building tension as he leads up to the surgery itself.” – Contributor, Publishers Weekly Annex on October 12, 2015


Create a “medical” display in the classroom with books like

  • Macaulay, David The way we work : getting to know the amazing human body ISBN 9780618233786
  • DK Publisher The visual dictionary of the human body. (Eyewitness Books) ISBN 9781879431188 
  • Fleischman, John Phineas Gage : a gruesome but true story about brain science ISBN 9781415551059

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