Helen Taussig was the founder of pediatric cardiology and one of the first outstanding women in American medicine. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to an academic family, Taussig's father was a Harvard economist and her mother one of the first students at Radcliffe College. Taussig also studied at Radcliffe, where she became a tennis champion, and then moved to the University of California at Berkeley to broaden her knowledge. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1921, Taussig enrolled at Harvard Medical School--as a special student, because women were not admitted to the regular program then. She transferred to Boston University Medical School where she was directed toward specializing in the heart by Dr. Alexander Begg (1881-1940), who also encouraged her to complete her studies at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland. After receiving her medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1927, Taussig completed an internship in pediatrics and in 1930 became head of the Children's Heart Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital, a position she held until her retirement in 1963.
Taussig began to use fluoroscopy and X-rays to determine what caused "blue babies," infants born with insufficient oxygenation of their bloodstream. She developed a theory that the condition was caused by a nonfunctioning artery. When Alfred Blalock (1899-1964) became chief surgeon at Johns Hopkins, Taussig interested him in her theory, and together they developed what became known as the "Blalock-Taussig Shunt," an operation that would save thousands of babies and initiated a major breakthrough in cardiac surgery that paved the way to open-heart surgery. Taussig continued to devote her career to pediatric heart disease, making important contributions in knowledge about acute rheumatic fever and congenital defects. Her two-volume Congenital Malformations of the Heart, published in 1947, became a standard in the field. In the early 1960's Taussig again saved untold thousands of children by going to Germany to investigate reported birth defects caused by the drug thalidomide. On her return, Taussig recommended to the Food and Drug Administration that the drug be banned in the United States.
In 1959, Taussig was made the first female full professor of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. She received the first Rivers Fellowship of the National Foundation-March of Dimes in 1963, a five-year cash award that allowed her to continue her research after her retirement. She continued patient follow-up studies and traveled widely, lecturing and teaching. In 1965 Taussig became the first woman president of the American Heart Association. At the time of her death in 1986 at the age of 87 in a car accident, Taussig was actively engaged in research on heart defects in birds.