Taussig is also known for her work in banning thalidomide and was widely recognized as a highly skilled physician.
Helen Brooke Taussig was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 24, 1898 to Frank W. Taussig and Edith Thomas Guild, who had three other children. Her father was an economist at Harvard University, and her mother was one of the first students at Radcliffe College, a women's college.
When Taussig was 11 years old, her mother succumbed to tuberculosis; Helen also contracted the disease and was ill for several years, severely affecting her ability to do schoolwork. She also struggled with severe dyslexia through her early school years. She graduated from Cambridge School for Girls in 1917, then studied for two years at Radcliffe before earning a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1921.
She spent summers as a child in Cotuit, Massachusetts, and later in life had a home there.
Taussig later studied histology, bacteriology, and anatomy at both Harvard Medical School and Boston University, though neither school allowed her to earn a degree. She was particularly discriminated against in her histology class, where she was barred from speaking to her male classmates for fear of "contamination." As an anatomy student at Boston University in 1925, she published her first scientific paper on studies of ox heart muscles with Alexander Begg. She applied to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was accepted as a full-degree candidate. She completed her MD degree in 1927 at Johns Hopkins, where she then remained for one year as a cardiology fellow and for two years as a pediatrics intern. While at Hopkins, she received two Archibald Fellowships, spanning 1927-1930.
Dr. Taussig became deaf in the later part of her career. She learned to use lip-reading techniques and hearing aids to speak with her patients, and her fingers rather than a stethoscope to feel the rhythm of their heartbeats and to lip read.
Taussig began her career after her fellowship in cardiology with a stint as head of a rheumatic fever department. She then was hired by the pediatric department of Johns Hopkins, the Harriet Lane Home, as its chief, where she served from 1930 until 1963. While there, she did extensive work on anoxemia, called "blue baby syndrome", and discovered its cause as a partial blockage of the pulmonary artery either alone or combined with a hole between the ventricles of the infant's heart. She worked with surgeon Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas to develop a surgery to correct the defect, resulting in what is now known as the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas shunt. They first performed the corrective surgery on dogs but by 1946 began to perform the operation on human babies. That year, she became an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; she was promoted to full professor in 1959. In 1947, Taussig published her magnum opus, Congenital Malformations of the Heart, considered to be the genesis of pediatric cardiology as an independent field. In 1954, she received the Albert Lasker award for outstanding contributions to medicine.
Taussig formally retired from Johns Hopkins in 1963, but continued to teach, give lectures, and lobby for various causes. In addition, she kept writing scientific papers (of the 129 total that Taussig wrote, 41 were after her retirement from Johns Hopkins). She advocated the use of animals in medical research and legalized abortion, as well as the benefits of palliative care and hospice.
In 1965, Dr. Helen Taussig was the first woman to become the president of the American Heart Association.
Taussig also learned of the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide on newborns and in 1967, testified before Congress on this matter after a trip to Germany where she worked with infants suffering from phocomelia (severe limb deformities). As a result of her efforts, thalidomide was banned in the United States and Europe. In 1977, Taussig moved to a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Ever active, she continued making periodic trips to the University of Delaware for research work. Taussig pioneered the use of x-rays and fluoroscopy simultaneously to examine changes in a baby's heart and lungs in a less invasive manner. At the time of her death, she was working on research involving the genetic basis for certain congenital heart defects with avian hearts.
On May 20, 1986, four days short of her 88th birthday, Taussig was driving a group of friends to vote in a local election when her car collided with another vehicle at an intersection, killing her instantly. The Johns Hopkins Hospital named the Helen B. Taussig Congenital Heart Disease Center in her honor, and in 2005 the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine named one of its four colleges in her honor. The University of Göttingen named its cardiac clinic in honor of Taussig in 1965.
In 1947, Taussig was honored by France as Chevalier (knight) of the Legion d'Honneur. In 1953, she received an honorary medal from the American College of Chest Physicians. She was honored by Italy with the Feltrinelli Award in 1954; that same year, she was given the Lasker Award for her work. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957. In 1963, she was given the Gold Heart Award. She was honored with the American Heart Association's award of merit in 1967. An honorary fellow of the American College of Cardiology in 1960, Taussig was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and the following year became the first female president of the American Heart Association. In 1963, Taussig received the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women. In 1973, Taussig was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, 27 years after Blalock was elected for their joint work on the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Throughout her career, Taussig earned more than 20 honorary degrees.
Taussig was a member of several prestigious professional societies during her career. She was a member of the American Pediatric Society, the Society for Pediatric Research, and the American College of Physicians. The American Pediatric Society honored her with the Howland Award in 1971, and Johns Hopkins awarded her the Milton S. Eisenhower Medal for Distinguished Service in 1976.
In the 2004 HBO movie Something the Lord Made, Dr. Taussig was portrayed by Mary Stuart Masterson.