Breakthrough! by Jim Murphy

Three unlikely people team up to perform a dangerous new surgery in Depression-era times in this gripping nonfiction story.

Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy. Clarion, 2015. 144 pages.

  • Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12
  • Recommended For: Ages 10 and up

In 1930s-40s America, medicine looked very different than it does today. Animal testing was routine, if controversial. White male doctors dominated the medical scene. And open-heart surgery was all but unheard of. Enter an unlikely group of three medical professionals: Alfred Blalock, white, new head of research at Johns Hopkins. Vivien Thomas, African American, Blalock’s “assistant.” Helen Taussig, white and partially deaf, heart specialist, especially for pediatrics.

Vivien and Alfred had already pioneered much research on heart surgery using animals at their lab at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Moving “north” didn’t help the racism Vivien faced, and many assumed he was simply the janitor or a lowly lab assistant. In reality, Vivien had done far more actual surgery on the animals’ hearts than had Alfred, and Alfred had to go to bat on Vivien’s behalf so that supplies he (Vivien) requested were actually ordered. Helen, persevering despite her growing deafness, was distraught that so many of her “blue babies” were dying, seemingly without hope. When she met Vivien and Alfred, the three realized that a dangerous open-heart surgery the men had pioneered on animals might actually work on these small children. But the risks were enormous. There were no supplies tiny enough for the stitches this surgery would require. The likelihood that a baby would die on the operating table was incredibly high. However, these babies had no other hope: without the surgery, they would most certainly die.

And thus, one of the most dramatic achievements in medial history is attempted. Murphy draws readers in to this multi-faceted story by starting in the tense operating room as Alfred conducts a surgery he’s not familiar with on Helen’s tiny patient, Vivien standing just behind him and whispering instructions.

Narrative nonfiction is Murphy’s specialty, and he excels in this book. Plenty of photographs accompany the text, and the details are downright fascinating. He weaves together Civil Rights, medical history, gender equality, and the fight to save lives into one cohesive story. An enlightening and engaging window into the first half of the 20th century, this is also a triumphant celebration of the importance of–and value of–human life, no matter how tiny.


  • Racism in the 30s and 40s in the south involved such practices as lynching. There is one photograph showing a man dangling from a rope.
  • Discussion/follow-up questions abound: how has medicine changed as a result of this event? How have we benefited from some of the pioneering work these three did? Do you know anyone who has had open-heart surgery as an infant? How does our country’s stance on abortion make this story more poignant and loaded? Have you ever been to an African American doctor? Are women more respected as medical professionals? How do we see racism and prejudice even today? Do you know of other “teams” in history that have worked together despite society’s prejudices? What would the Bible say about some of the things Vivien, in particular, experiences? Would you have been brave enough to attempt the surgery?

Overall Rating: 4.5

  • Worldview Rating: 4.5
  • Artistic Rating: 4.5

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Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Northwest.

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