John Livingston

A True Feminist

Helen B. Taussig was one of the greatest individuals I have ever met. She was a pioneer in her field of pediatric cardiology and was one of the founders of the Taussig—Blalock—Thompson shunt. She was a true classical feminist. We had a relationship that traversed two generations within my family. My father was a family practitioner in Mohall North Dakota in 1948 when he sent Dr. Taussig one of the first “blue babies” with the congenital heart defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot. I met Dr. Taussig at The Johns Hopkins Medical school in 1973 one month before I started medical school at Ohio State. I had won a trip to meet Dr. Taussig as a prize for an electron microscopy paper I had written as part of a contest. My project was about the imaging of actin-myosin fibrils in cardiac muscle using osmium-tetrachloride fixation. Dr. Taussig was the head of pediatric cardiology at The John Hopkins and reviewed my paper in front of her medical house staff. The review was strict and not flattering in any way, and she ended with the comment—”don’t worry keep plucking.”

Upon leaving the room I handed her a letter from my father remembering his patient from 26 years earlier. She sternly called me back into the room and asked me to sit down. Though never mentioned in my father’s letter, she knew the name of the baby, she knew that it had been the 27th operation Dr. Blaylock and Mr. Thompson performed, and she knew that the lady was now a mother with three children none who had any cardiac defects and were all normal kids. By 1973 similar operations had been performed across the world, saving the lives of thousands of children. She won the Presidential Medal for Freedom in 1964 for her trailblazing work. If she had been a man, she would have won the Nobel Prize. She didn’t care about either award.

Three years later I was a Sr. medical student on active duty at Bethesda Naval Hospital and I presented on two occasions to Dr. Taussig at Cardiology combined grand rounds that included the services of Bethesda Naval Hospital, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown University. After each presentation she invited me back to her office once for lunch, always remembering her patient and my father. It was then that I realized that she wore a hearing aid and that she had been deaf since the age of 8 after a childhood ear infection and couldn’t use a stethoscope. Dr. Proctor Harvey who was chief of Cardiology at Georgetown and the inventor of a stethoscope that bears his name, always remarked after examining a patient that Dr. Taussig could discern more by palpating the heart with her fingers than he could by listening to the patient with his brand-new stethoscope!

On her desk Dr. Taussig had pictures of her nieces and nephews. She never was married or had children herself, but a good portion of our visits were about her family and her sister’s children. During all this time I was still a bachelor and she always asked me when I was going to get married and have a family—every time. She wished that “professional women in her day could have had the opportunities that are available to women today”. But then she surprisingly added that she wouldn’t have been as good mother as her sister and her sister could never have been as good a doctor as she. Greatness in my opinion is often accompanied by self-awareness. Being a mother and having a family was something she honored.

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After my first visit, she walked the class of undergraduate students out the hall of the administrative building at The Johns Hopkins where she talked to us about how proud she was to be part of that particular institution that had given her opportunities in an age where women were allowed to enter medical schools, but not graduate with a degree—which is why she left Harvard and went to Johns Hopkins. Our visit to Baltimore was 6 months after the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. Without prompting she talked about the fragility of the unborn, just like her blue babies were fragile. Maybe, and I paraphrase, if the unborn baby is disposable, maybe the babies with Tetralogy or a patent ductus will become less valuable to society.

What I remember most about that first visit was her standing beneath the great statue at Hopkins THE CHRISTIUS CONSULATOR “The Devine Healer”. As she talked to us she talked of her own faith—she was not Catholic and seldom talked and never wrote about such matters, but years later and after finally understanding her life’s story, what has the most profound impact on me was that as she was speaking, her hands were constantly touching the statue—touching the feet of Jesus, just like the man in the video below. This woman who couldn’t hear for most of her entire life and palpated infant heart sounds with her fingers was touching the feet of Jesus as she spoke to us! Her life’s work was a vocation not a profession. Her relationship to her patients was a covenant relationship that God was party too. Several of the academics and professors that accompanied our group as chaperones—in those days college kids always went on such trips with chaperones, were noticeably uncomfortable with her comments. I never really understood their importance or prescient message until many years later. There is a place for reason and faith. One without the other leaves a hallow void in both the heart and the mind.

Several weeks before I got married, I wrote to Dr. Taussig about my upcoming nuptials. She wrote a hand letter note back: “Please say hi to Dr. Livingston (my father). His patient is now the mother of 4 children—teenagers. PS: Have many children”

A woman and a man can serve God in many ways. Being a mother or a father is a vocation—the model for motherhood and fatherhood is the life witness of Mary and Joseph. Family and children are at the center of God’s wishes for us. But there are other ways to serve God and the lives of the Apostles and Saints give witness to those alternative vocations. The point is that however we choose to live our lives, vocation and witness to God should be the means and the end.

Dr. Taussig was a pioneer and a hero for both men and women. I believe she knew she was straddling the abyss between the world she had to navigate as a woman physician and academic in her youth, and the opportunities that would become available to women in the 70’s and 80’s. She worried about the choices and reasons for the choices that women were going to make in the future.

There is no more challenging, difficult, or fulfilling job as that of being a parent. But a profession when viewed as a vocation can be fulfilling. What matters in the end is “who do you serve”. How you serve isn’t the point. Do you live to glorify God or serve yourself?

In Idaho according to Stanton Health Care and Idaho Chooses Life there has only been one abortion performed in three years to protect the life of the mother. I believe the number is probably higher, but for reasons I can understand the actual number is not reported. That means that the great majority of abortions in Idaho are performed for convenience.

I must ask: “Does the right of convenience supersede the right to life”?

I wish Dr. Taussig was alive today to give us her answer to that question. The perspective of a true “classical feminist” would be valuable today.

That’s the way I see things from Garden City.

PS “Mary said yes.”

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2 replies on “A True Feminist”

Thanks, Ron, for your kind comment. Dr. Taussig was a very complicated woman who lived in a time where it was very difficult to rise acedemically in the “man’s world” of academic medicine. Certainly, a subject worthy of more than just one thousand words. I didn’t even know until years after that she also had to overcome severe dyslexia. She also was a pioneer in identifying thalidomide as the cause of severe birth defects. Her life’s work was co-opted after her death by several feminist organizations and thirty years after her death I found an article describing her as “pro-choice”. Watching and listening to her on three separate occasions over 12 years I came away with a verry different impression of her views on that subject. History is always being “rewritten” with an “attitude”

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