Partners of the Heart

Against the backdrop of segregation, Vivien Thomas, a black carpenter’s apprentice with a genius for surgery, and Dr. Alfred Blalock, a renowned white surgeon, dared to defy medical gospel by forging a partnership that changed the course of medical history.

The two men’s work together led to one of the century’s major breakthroughs – a daring heart operation that has saved thousands of children afflicted with a congenital heart defect called “Blue Baby Syndrome.”  With only a high school degree, Thomas became a cardiac pioneer and a teacher to two generations of America’s premiere heart surgeons at a time when he himself could not become one.  His journey is a compelling, often overlooked American story of personal triumph over the strictures of his time.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, Partners of the Heart was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and was broadcast on PBS’ American Experience. In 2015, Partners of the Heart was selected as one of the top 50 projects ever funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities during their 50th anniversary celebration.

"He's the most untalked about, unknown giant in the African American community...what he helped facilitate impacted people all over the world." Dr. Levi Watkins  



Spark Media created an educational outreach campaign designed primarily to motivate and inspire minority and disadvantaged youth interested in science and medicine.

A direct result of the campaign was the establishment of the CBCF Vivien Thomas Scholarship for Medical Science and Research, a $500,000 scholarship for African American high school graduates or college students interested in pursuing careers in health, medicine or biomedical research. GlaxoSmithKline partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses and the CBC Foundation to create the scholarship.

Spark Media also arranged screenings for educational communities; the screenings were usually followed by a Q&A session to give students a forum for interaction and discussion. Screenings with high school students were held in Washington, D.C. (funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation), Baltimore, Los Angeles, Detroit and Seattle. Another successful outreach strategy teamed up public programs in health and entertainment. GSK sponsored free health screenings around the country, focusing primarily on diseases that affect African Americans disproportionately, such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, HIV/AIDS and benign prostatic hyperplasia. The public health screenings were always accompanied with a screening of Partners of the Heart. Another unique initiative involved organizing prominent physicians and community leaders to serve as “ambassadors” for the GSK Healthy Communities events, taking a role in mentoring in high schools, organizing health screenings, and promoting the scholarship program. Ambassador programs took place in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

As collateral material for the outreach campaign, Spark produced a CD of an interactive surgery game, “You Be The Surgeon,” where students can attempt to perform the blue baby operation, a promotional release of the Partners of the Heart film score, an educational viewer’s guide, which delves deeper into several of the film’s themes, as well as provides examples of contemporary inspirational stories and a re-edited 45-minute version of Partners of the Heart, making the film more accessible for high schools that wish to screen the program during class.


Produced and Directed by:
Andrea Kalin

Written by:
Lou Potter and Andrea Kalin

Narrated by:
Morgan Freeman

Recreation Sequences Directed by:
Bill Duke

Director of Photography:
John Rhode

Edited by:
Susan Fanshel
Barbara Burst

Original Music composed by:
Joseph Vitarelli

Voice of Vivien Thomas:
Courtney B. Vance

Associate Producer:
Monte Achenbach

Production Manager:
Karen Simon

Art Directed by:
Brian McKissick

Production Designer Recreations:
Tim Stamey

Music Production and Supervision:
David Franco

Creative Consultants:
Toni Ann Johnson
David Taylor

Consulting Producer/ Recreations Assistant Director:
Skip Coblyn

Astrid Kusser
James Mirabello
Mitch Eisen
Rachel Clift
Robin Coblyn
Kitty King
Leanne Clifton

John Egerton
Don Doyle, Ph.D.
Elizabeth Fee, Ph.D.
Alan Kraut, Ph.D.
David McBride, Ph.D.
Reavis Mitchell, Ph.D.
John Parascondola, Ph.D.
Charles Reagan Wilson. Ph.D.
Joseph Reidy, Ph.D.
R. Robinson Baker, M.D.
Denton A. Cooley, M.D.
J. Alex Haller, Jr., M.D.
Richard N. Scott, M.D.
Levi Watkins, Jr. M.D.

Production Associate:
James Mirabello

Sound Recordist:
Haven McKinney

Assistant Camera:
Nick Franco

Additional Photography:
Nick Franco
Noodles (Rich) Moriarty
Dave Goulding
Dennis Boni
Bob Perrin
R.A. Stringer
Marcus Smith

Paul Young
Nicholas Blair
Chris Scianella

Still Photography:
Nick Franco
David Smith

Mike Keelty
Tim P. Gordon
John Priebe
Jamie Bradley
Claiborne B. Lashley
Mike Purbaugh

Orchestrations and Conducting:
Jorge del Barrio

Music Preparation:
Kenneth Gruberman

Additional Music Production:
Brad Ellis and Nicholas Viterelli

Music Editor:
Allan K. Rosen

“Nashville Dance Hall”
“Coming to Baltimore”
Written and Performed by:
Joe Delia

Post Production:
Roland House

Sound Mixer:
Brian Cunneff

Sound Effects:
John Rigatuso

On-line Editor:
Kevin McCarthy

Graphics and Photographic Animations:
Luis G. Portillo

Narration Recorded at:
Warren Wood Studios, Los Angeles

Dr. Alfred Blalock: Beau James
Vivien Thomas: Chris Haley
Dr. Helen Taussig: Jane Leuders
Newsreel Voice: John Dryden

Location Grips:
Casey Kaleba
Chris Mirabello
John Williams
Louis Baker
Kevin Coleman
Rodney Gray

Wardrobe & Props:
Barbara York
Robin Coblyn
Christine Burton
Sylvia Davis
Jane Lueders
Karen Simon
Gail Kalin
Desiree Marie
Ana Maria Reis

Fabric for Surgeon’s costumes:
Darnell Fabrics, Inc.

Antique Lab Equipment:
National Institutes of Health

Executive Consultant:
Glenn Dixon

Production Assistants:
Silvia Holmes
Wanakhavi Wahisi
Allegra Chatterjee
Carleton Overstreet
LeBarry Mosley
Rodney Gray

Garland McLauri
Greg Morris
Xavier Green
Michael Wilson
Natasha Rainey
Leshawna Fair
Lorraine Gillette
Kevin Coleman
Louis Baker
Jared Rudenstein
Jarret Bellini
Niya Palmer

Administration Assistant:
Debra Jackson

Special Thanks:
Clara Thomas
Dandy and Ann Blalock
Betty Ridgely
Koco and Karen Eaton
Marcia T. Rasberry
Ursula Dijkhoffz
Lillian Thomas
Olga T. and Harold Norris
Nena Norris
Sol Delande Eaton and Harold Eaton
Soli Clahane
Valeria Spann
Richard Trank
Walter High
Tim Lorenz
Elizabeth Norris
Etalem Gebreyesus
Natliya Tichamirov
Denise Couture
Margaret Belkov
Paige Hamilton
Adesuwa McCalla
Michael Ball
William Stoney, M.D., St. Thomas Hospital
Ann Belkov
Laine Kaufman
Jan Blackford
Shannon Graphics
Dan’s Diner
Jean Queen
Charles Carpenter, M.D.
Thomas Turner, MD
Alfred Casper
Fred Gilliam
Raymond Lee
Sandra Stoltz
The Men and Women of the U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home
Howard University School of Communications
Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology
Morgan State University

Archival Sources:
Nashville Public Library
The Baltimore Sun
Texas Heart Institute
AFRO-American Newspapers Archives and Research Center
Tennessee State Library and Archives
Meharry Medical College Archives
The Hearst Corporation
American Medical Association
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Look Magazine Photograph Collection
National Archives and Records Administration
National Library of Medicine
Special Collections Department, Langsdale Library, University of Baltimore
WMAR-TV News Collection, Langsdale Library, University of Baltimore
Maryland State Archives
Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, District of Colombia
Archives Films by Getty Images
Maryland Department, Enoch Pratt Free Library
Audio-Visual Department, Enoch Pratt Free Library
Rockefeller Foundation
The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Thom Miller, Courtesy of The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Sy Friedman, Courtesy of The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Johns Hopkins Medical Video and Multimedia operated by Learnware International, a licensee of Johns Hopkins University
The Ferdinand Hamburger Archives of the Johns Hopkins University Historical Collection
Eskind Biomedical Library, Vanderbilt University Medical School
Geneological Society of Henry and Clayton Counties, Inc.
Special Collections, Vanderbilt University
Cover Image Copyright 1985 by the University of Penn Press, reproduced with permission of the publisher
Cover, reproduced with permission from Modern Medicine, Vol.22, Issue 13 July 1, 1954. Modern Medicine, Copyright 2002 Advanstar Communications, Inc.
Mary C. Burnett Collection
Yousuf Karsh/Woodfin Camp
Morton Tadder/Baltimore
Francis Saxon
Sadie Overton
Mary Olch
Jean Queen
Fred Gilliam
Thelma Battle

Additional Support Provided By:
Bergman Foundation
Victoria Goldberg
The Maryland Humanities Council
The Tennessee Humanities Council
The D.C. Humanities Council
The Mississippi Humanities Council
The Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Foundation
Blake & Melissa Swensrud
Dr. Stephen & Lori Markowitz
Dr. Milton & Marilyn Kalin
Dr. Steven Rayport and Dr. Marcia Kalin
Dolores & Arnold Wolf
Peter Kovler

Project Fiscal Sponsor:
The Saint Thomas Foundation

A Duke Media and Spark Media Production for American Experience


National Endowment for the Humanities Top 50 – 2015
2010 Gold TIVA Peer Award for Best Documentary Classic
Erik Barnouw Award for Best History Documentary
Gold Special Jury Award, Houston International Film Festival
CINE Award
Chris Award
Telly Award