Dr. Joseph Wright ’75 Champions Story of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

“Poly inspires its students and alumni to think broadly, dream broadly, not to be limited by what we see,” said Dr. Joseph Wright ’75, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP.

Alumni-in-Film Series

Dr. Wright, a pediatric emergency medicine expert, was inspired by Poly again in November. When he received an email announcing Poly was featuring the film Something the Lord Made as the inaugural film in our new Poly on Film Alumni-in-Film discussion series, he reached out to Director of Arts Outreach Robert Aberlin ’62, P’00, ’03, a coordinator of the series. Since Dr. Wright saw the film Something the Lord Made in 2004, he has been on a mission to promote the story of Vivien Thomas among the medical community. The film, produced by Robert Cort ’64, tells the story of the Black cardiac surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas and his complex partnership with white surgeon Alfred Blalock, the “Blue Baby doctor” who pioneered modern heart surgery. Dr Wright became a featured guest during that first Alumni-in-Film discussion via video.

Joseph Wright ’75, M.D. and Vivien Thomas (inset)

Dr. Wright is currently Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer within the University of Maryland Medical System as well as an Adjunct Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Dr. Wright describes coming to Poly at the age of 11 as a “transformative” experience. Each day he took two subway trains and a bus from his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to the Dyker Heights campus. His parents, a police officer and a social worker, worked hard and supported his opportunity to attend Poly. His dad would often pop into basketball games to watch him play. When Dr. Wright won the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010, his mother was there and he says it was then that she truly understood the full meaning of what the school had meant in her son’s life and that they had made the right decision in sending him to Poly.

Dr. Wright in his Poly Prep 1975 yearbook photo

Dr. Wright attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Rutgers Medical School. After finishing his pediatric residency at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the National Health Service Corps practicing primary care pediatrics for four years back in Bed-Stuy. He earned a master of public health degree in administrative medicine and management from George Washington University and worked at Children’s National Health System and later taught at Howard University.

Early on Dr. Wright decided to specialize in pediatric medicine, a field in which he is an acknowledged national expert in the area of pediatric emergency medicine. After many years in the emergency department (ED), Dr. Wright is now an administrator. “The ED is a place for young people,” said Dr. Wright, noting the long and late hours.

In the practice of pediatric medicine, Dr. Wright knew well the impact of the heart procedure developed by Vivien Thomas and Dr. Alfred Blalock and known as the Blalock-Taussig Shunt. When Dr. Wright saw Robert Cort’s film Something the Lord Made, he said it was like a “gut punch.” He had taken care of scores of kids with the same heart condition, corrected by the Blalock-Taussig Shunt. He was unaware of Vivien Thomas’ role in developing the life-saving procedure. “It is not a story that is taught in medical school,” he said and added, “None of my colleagues knew the story either.” Since becoming aware, Dr. Wright has been campaigning to have the name of the procedure also include the name of Thomas.

“I was so touched by Poly’s Arts project,” Dr. Wright said, to bring light to this hidden history. He noted last year was the 75th anniversary of the development of the procedure. “This procedure changed medicine,” Dr. Wright said. Before this procedure, operating on the heart was “taboo,” he said. Now, at this time when there is attention to equity and correctionist history, is the moment to recognize Vivien Thomas’ contribution, Dr. Wright said.

When asked how his young medical students react to hearing the story of Vivien Thomas, Dr. Wright said they were shocked. “They were much more proactive” than his older colleagues, he said. “This needs to be known,” his students insisted.

“Broaden your horizons, even if you can’t see them, don’t limit your dreams.”

Dr. Joseph Wright ’75, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP

Dr. Wright said he likes to stay connected with Poly classmates and was saddened by the passing of Emmy Award-winning composer Glen Roven ‘75.

Poly broadened the world for Dr. Wright. His advice to current Poly students would be, “Broaden your horizons, even if you can’t see them, don’t limit your dreams. Poly allowed me to think broadly.” He added, “The most valuable tool that Poly gave me, one that I use every day, is how to write.” This is invaluable, he said in academic medicine where you must “publish or perish.”

“To expose this story to students at Poly was worth its weight in gold,” Dr. Wright said of the Poly in Film event.

Read more about the Alumni-in-Film series and find out more about Poly’s Arts Partnership program.