Say his name, and the busiest heart surgeons in the world will stop and talk for an hour. Of course they have time, they say, these men who count time in seconds, who race against the clock. This is about Vivien Thomas. For Vivien they’ll make time.
Dr. Denton Cooley has just come out of surgery, and he has 47 minutes between operations. “No, you don’t need an appointment,” his secretary is saying. “Dr. Cooley’s right here. He wants to talk to you now.”
Cooley suddenly is on the line from his Texas Heart Institute in Houston. In a slow Texas drawl he says he just loves being bothered about Vivien. And then, in 47 minutes—just about the time it takes him to do a triple bypass—he tells you about the man who taught him that kind of speed.
No, Vivien Thomas wasn’t a doctor, says Cooley. He wasn’t even a college graduate. He was just so smart, and so skilled, and so much his own man, that it didn’t matter.
And could he operate. Even if you’d never seen surgery before, Cooley says, you could do it because Vivien made it look so simple.
Vivien Thomas and Denton Cooley both arrived at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1941—Cooley to begin work on his medical degree, Thomas to run the hospital’s surgical lab under Dr. Alfred Blalock. In 1941 the only other black employees at the Johns Hopkins Hospital were janitors. People stopped and stared at Thomas, flying down corridors in his white lab coat. Visitors’ eyes widened at the sight of a black man running the lab. But ultimately the fact that Thomas was black didn’t matter, either. What mattered was that Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas could do historic things together that neither could do alone.
Together they devised an operation to save “Blue Babies”—infants born with a heart defect that sends blood past their lungs—and Cooley was there, as an intern, for the first one. He remembers the tension in the operating room that November morning in 1944 as Dr. Blalock rebuilt a little girl’s tiny, twisted heart.
He remembers how that baby went from blue to pink the minute Dr. Blalock removed the clamps and her arteries began to function. And he remembers where Thomas stood—on a little step stool, looking over Dr. Blalock’s right shoulder, answering questions and coaching every move.
“You see,” explains Cooley, “it was Vivien who had worked it all out in the lab, in the canine heart, long before Dr. Blalock did Eileen, the first Blue Baby. There were no ‘cardiac experts’ then. That was the beginning.”
A loudspeaker summons Cooley to surgery. He says he’s on his way to do a “tet case” right now. That’s tetralogy of Fallot, the congenital heart defect that causes Blue Baby Syndrome. They say that Cooley does them faster than anyone, that he can make a tetralogy operation look so simple it doesn’t even look like surgery. “That’s what I took from Vivien,” he says, “simplicity. There wasn’t a false move, not a wasted motion, when he operated.”
But in the medical world of the 1940s that chose and trained men like Denton Cooley, there wasn’t supposed to be a place for a black man, with or without a degree. Still, Vivien Thomas made a place for himself. He was a teacher to surgeons at a time when he could not become one. He was a cardiac pioneer 30 years before Hopkins opened its doors to the first black surgical resident.
Those are the facts that Cooley has laid out, as swiftly and efficiently as he operates. And yet history argues that the Vivien Thomas story could never have happened.
In 1930, Vivien Thomas was a nineteen-year-old carpenter’s apprentice with his sights set on Tennessee State College and then medical school. But the Depression, which had halted carpentry work in Nashville, wiped out his savings and forced him to postpone college. Through a friend who worked at Vanderbilt University, Thomas learned of an opening as a laboratory assistant for a young doctor named Alfred Blalock—who was, in his friend’s words, “hell to get along with.” Thomas decided to take a chance, and on February 10, 1930, he walked into Blalock’s animal lab.
Out came Blalock, a Coke in one hand, cigarette in the other. A remote cousin of Jefferson Davis, Blalock was in many ways a Southern aristocrat, flashing an ebony cigarette holder and smiling through clouds of smoke. But the 30-year-old surgeon who showed Thomas into his office was even then, Thomas said, “a man who knew exactly what he wanted.” Blalock saw the same quality in Thomas, who exuded a no-nonsense attitude he had absorbed from his hardworking father. The well-spoken young man who sat on the lab stool politely responding to Blalock’s questions had never been in a laboratory before. Yet he was full of questions about the experiment in progress, eager to learn not just “what” but “why” and “how.” Instinctively, Blalock responded to that curiosity, describing his experiment as he showed Thomas around the lab.
Face to face on two lab stools, each told the other what he needed. Thomas needed a job, he said, until he could enter college the next fall. Blalock, well into his groundbreaking work on shock—the first phase of the body’s reaction to trauma—needed “someone in the lab whom I can teach to do anything I can do, and maybe do things I can’t do.”
Each man got more than he bargained for. Within three days, Vivien Thomas was performing almost as if he’d been born in the lab, doing arterial punctures on the laboratory dogs and measuring and administering anesthesia. Within a month, the former carpenter was setting up experiments and performing delicate and complex operations.
Blalock could see Thomas had a talent for surgery and a keen intellect, but he was not to see the full measure of the man he’d hired until the day Thomas made his first mistake.
“Something went wrong,” Thomas later wrote in his autobiography. “I no longer recall what, but I made some error. Dr. Blalock sounded off like a child throwing a temper tantrum. The profanity he used would have made the proverbial sailor proud of him. ... I told him he could just pay me off … that I had not been brought up to take or use that kind of language. … He apologized, saying he had lost his temper, that he would watch his language, and he asked me to go back to work.”
From that day on, said Thomas, “neither one of us ever hesitated to tell the other, in a straightforward, man-to-man manner, what he thought or how he felt. ... In retrospect, I think that incident set the stage for what I consider our mutual respect throughout the years.”
For 34 years they were a remarkable combination: Blalock the scientist, asking the questions; Thomas the pragmatist, figuring out the simplest way to get the answers. At their blacktopped workbench and eight animal operating tables, the two set out to disprove all the old explanations about shock, amassing evidence that connected it to a decrease in blood volume and fluid loss outside the vascular bed.
In a few years, the explanations Blalock was developing would lead to massive applications of blood and plasma transfusion in the treatment of shock. Methodically, from their lab at “that school down in the backwoods”—as Blalock called Vanderbilt—he and Thomas were altering physiology.
All that was inside the laboratory. Outside loomed the Depression. In a world where “men were walking the streets looking for jobs that didn’t exist,” Thomas watched his own college and medical-school plans evaporate. “I was out of school for the second year,” he wrote, “but I somehow felt that things might change in my favor. ... But it didn’t happen.” With each passing month, Thomas’s hopes dimmed, something not lost on Blalock. The two men discussed it, and Thomas finally decided that even if he someday could afford college, medical school now seemed out of reach. By 1932, Thomas had made his peace. “For the time being,” he said, “I felt secure in that, at least, I had a job. Things were getting to the point that it seemed to be a matter of survival.”
But the young man who read chemistry and physiology textbooks by day and monitored experiments by night was doing more than surviving. For $12 a week, with no overtime pay for sixteen-hour days and no prospect of advancement or recognition, another man might have survived. Thomas excelled.
Coached by Blalock’s young research fellow, Dr. Joseph Beard, Thomas mastered anatomy and physiology, and he plunged into Blalock’s round-the-clock research. At 5 p.m., when everyone else was leaving, Thomas and “The Professor” prepared to work on into the night—Thomas setting up the treasured Van Slyke machine used to measure blood oxygen, Blalock starting the siphon on the ten-gallon charred keg of whiskey he kept hidden in the laboratory storeroom during Prohibition. Then, as they settled down to monitor all-night shock experiments, Blalock and Thomas would relax with a whiskey-and-Coke.
Blalock and Thomas knew the social codes and traditions of the Old South. They understood the line between life inside the lab, where they could drink together in 1930, and life outside, where they could not. Neither one was to cross that line. Thomas attended Blalock’s parties as a bartender, moonlighting for extra income. In 1960 when Blalock celebrated his 60th birthday at Baltimore’s Southern Hotel, Thomas was not present.
Within the lab, they functioned almost as a single mind, as Thomas’s deft hands turned Blalock’s ideas into elegant and detailed experiments. In the verbal shorthand they developed, Thomas learned to translate Blalock’s “I wonder what would happen if” into step-by-step scientific protocols. Through hundreds of experiments, Blalock wondered and Thomas found out, until in 1933 Blalock was ready to challenge the medical establishment with his first “named lecture.”
Almost overnight, Blalock’s shock theory became “more or less Gospel,” as Thomas put it. By 1935, a handful of other scientists had begun to rethink the physiology of shock, but no one besides Blalock had attacked the problem from so many angles. No one else had compiled such a mass of data on hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. No one else had been able to explain such a complex phenomenon so simply. And no other scientist had a Vivien Thomas.
In his four years with Blalock, Thomas had assumed the role of a senior research fellow, with neither a PhD nor an MD. But as a black man doing highly technical research, he had never really fit into the system—a reality that became painfully clear when in a salary discussion with a black coworker, Thomas discovered that Vanderbilt classified him as a janitor. He was careful but firm when he approached Blalock on the issue: “I told Dr. Blalock ... that for the type of work I was doing, I felt I should be ... put on the pay scale of a technician, which I was pretty sure was higher than janitor pay.”
Blalock promised to investigate. After that, “nothing more was ever said about the matter,” Thomas recalled. When several paydays later Thomas and his coworker received salary increases, neither knew whether he had been reclassified as a technician or just given more money because Blalock demanded it.
In the world in which Thomas had grown up, confrontation could be dangerous for a black man. Vivien’s older brother, Harold, had been a school teacher in Nashville. He had sued the Nashville Board of Education, alleging salary discrimination based on race. With the help of an NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, Harold Thomas had won his suit. But he lost his job. So Vivien had learned the art of avoiding trouble. He recalled: “Had there been an organized complaint by the Negroes performing technical duties, there was a good chance that all kinds of excuses would have been offered to avoid giving us technicians’ pay and that leaders of the movement or action would have been summarily fired.”
Thomas had family obligations to consider, too. In December 1933, after a whirlwind courtship, he had married a young woman from Macon, Georgia, named Clara Flanders. Their first child, Olga Fay, was born the following year, and a second daughter, Theodosia, would arrive in 1938.
The satisfaction of making a public racial statement was a luxury Thomas would not have for decades, and even then he would make his point quietly. Meanwhile, he worked hard, making himself indispensable to Blalock, and in so doing he gained a powerful ally within the system. When they confronted discrimination again, they confronted it together.
The test of their partnership was not long in coming. In 1937, Blalock received an offer of a prestigious chairmanship from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. As surgeon-in-chief there, he could run his own department, train his own men, expand his research.
He and Thomas were a package deal, Blalock told the powers at Henry Ford. In that case, the answer came back, there would be no deal. The hospital’s policy against hiring blacks was inflexible. So was his policy on Vivien Thomas, Blalock politely replied.
The two bided their time, teaching themselves vascular surgery in experiments in which they attempted to produce pulmonary hypertension in dogs. The hypertension studies, as such, “were a flop,” Thomas said. But they were one of the most productive flops in medical history.
By 1940, Blalock’s research had put him head and shoulders above any young surgeon in America. When the call came to return to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, as surgeon-in-chief, he was able to make a deal on his own terms, and it included Thomas. “I want you to go with me to Baltimore,” Blalock told Thomas just before Christmas 1940. Thomas, always his own man, replied, “I will consider it.”
Though Blalock would take a pay cut, the move to Hopkins offered him prestige and independence. For the 29-year-old Thomas and his family, it meant leaving the home they had built in Nashville for a strange city and an uncertain future.
In the end, it was World War II that caused Thomas to “take his chances” with Blalock. If he were drafted, it would be to his advantage to be at Hopkins, Thomas decided, because he would probably be placed with a medical unit. Always the family man, he was thinking practically. So Blalock, with everything to gain, and Thomas, with “nothing to lose,” as he put it, made their move together.
When they came to Hopkins, they brought with them solutions to the problems of shock that would save many wounded soldiers in World War II. They brought expertise in vascular surgery that would change medicine. And they brought five dogs, whose rebuilt hearts held the answer to a question no one yet had asked.
When Blalock and Thomas arrived in Baltimore in 1941, the questions on most people’s minds had nothing to do with cardiac surgery. How on earth was this boyish professor of surgery going to run a department, they wondered. With his simple questions and his Georgia drawl, Blalock didn’t sound much like the golden boy described in his letters of reference. Besides, he had brought a colored man up from Vanderbilt to run his lab. A colored man who wasn’t even a doctor.
Thomas had doubts of his own as he walked down Hopkins’s dimly lit corridors, eyed the peeling green paint and bare concrete floors, and breathed in the odors of the ancient, unventilated structure that was to be his workplace: the Old Hunterian Laboratory. One look inside the instrument cabinet told him that he was in the surgical Dark Ages.
It was enough to make him want to head back to Nashville and take up his carpenter’s tools again. After a day of house-hunting in Baltimore, he thought he might have to. Baltimore was more expensive than either he or Blalock had imagined. Even with a 20 percent increase over his Vanderbilt salary, Thomas found it “almost impossible to get along.” Something would have to be done, he told Blalock.
Blalock had negotiated both of their salaries from Nashville, and now the deal could not be renegotiated. It seemed that they were stuck. “Perhaps you could discuss the problem with your wife,” Blalock suggested. “Maybe she could get a job to help out.”
Thomas bristled. His father was a builder who had supported a family of seven. He meant to do at least as well for his own family. “I intend for my wife to take care of our children,” he told Blalock, “and I think I have the capability to let her do so—except I may have the wrong job.”
If neither Hopkins nor Thomas would bend, Blalock would have to find another way to solve the problem. Blalock was not wealthy, but he had an ally at Hopkins, world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Walter Dandy, who was known for his generosity. That afternoon Blalock presented his situation to Dandy, who responded immediately with a donation to the department—earmarked for Thomas’s salary.
So Thomas ordered his surgical supplies, cleaned and painted the lab, put on his white coat, and settled down to work. On his first walk from the lab to Blalock’s office in the hospital across campus, the Negro man in a lab coat halted traffic. The hospital had segregated restrooms and a back entrance for black patients. Vivien Thomas surprised Johns Hopkins.
Inside the lab, it was his skill that raised eyebrows. What he was doing was entirely new to the two other Hopkins lab technicians, who were expected just to set up experiments for the medical investigators to carry out. How long had he been doing this, they wanted to know. How and where had he learned?
Then, one morning in 1943, while Johns Hopkins and Vivien Thomas were still getting used to each other, someone asked a question that would change surgical history.
For this part of the story, we have Thomas’s own voice on tape—deep, rich, and full of soft accents. In an extensive 1967 interview with medical historian Dr. Peter Olch, we meet the warm, wry Vivien Thomas who remains hidden behind the formal, scientific prose of his autobiography. He tells the Blue Baby story so matter-of-factly that you forget he’s outlining the beginning of cardiac surgery.
For once, it wasn’t Blalock who asked the question that started it all. It was Dr. Helen Taussig, a Hopkins cardiologist, who came to Blalock and Thomas looking for help for the cyanotic babies she was seeing. At birth these babies became weak and “blue,” and sooner or later all died. Surely there had to be a way to “change the pipes around” to bring more blood to their lungs, Taussig said.
There was silence. “The Professor and I just looked at each other. We knew we had the answer in the Vanderbilt work,” Thomas says, referring to the operation he and Blalock had worked out at Vanderbilt some six years earlier—the “failed” experiment in which they had divided a major artery and sewn it into the pulmonary artery that supplied the lungs. The procedure had not produced the hypertension model they had sought, but it had rerouted the arterial blood into the lungs. It might be the solution for Taussig’s Blue Babies.
But “might” wasn’t good enough. Thomas first would have to reproduce tetralogy of Fallot in the canine heart before the effectiveness of their “pipechanging” could be tested.
Off he went to the Pathology Museum, with its collection of congenitally defective hearts. For days, he went over the specimens—tiny hearts so deformed they didn’t even look like hearts. So complex was the four-part anomaly of Fallot’s tetralogy that Thomas thought it possible to reproduce only two of the defects, at most. “Nobody had fooled around with the heart before,” he says, “so we had no idea what trouble we might get into. I asked The Professor whether we couldn’t find an easier problem to work on. He told me, ‘Vivien, all the easy things have been done.’“
Taussig’s question was asked in 1943, and for more than a year it consumed Blalock and Thomas, both by then working in the Army’s shock research program. Alone in the lab, Thomas set about replicating the Blue Baby defect in dogs and answering two questions: Would the Vanderbilt procedure relieve cyanosis? Would babies survive it?
As he was working out the final details in the dog lab, a frail, cyanotic baby named Eileen Saxon lay in an oxygen tent in the infant ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Even at rest, the nine-pound girl’s skin was deeply blue, her lips and nail beds purple. Blalock surprised Eileen’s parents and his chief resident, Dr. William Longmire, with his bedside announcement: He was going to perform an operation to bring more blood to Eileen’s lungs.
Overnight, the tetralogy operation moved from the lab to the operating room. Because there were no needles small enough to join the infant’s arteries, Thomas chopped off needles from the lab, held them steady with a clothespin at the eye end, and honed new points with an emery block. Suture silk for human arteries didn’t exist, so they made do with the silk Thomas had used in the lab—as well as the lab’s clamps, forceps, and right-angle nerve hook.
So complete was the transfer from lab to operating room on the morning of November 29, 1944, that only Thomas was missing when Eileen Saxon was wheeled into surgery. “I don’t think I’ll go,” he had said to chemistry technician Clara Belle Puryear the previous afternoon. “I might make Dr. Blalock nervous—or even worse, he might make me nervous!”
But Blalock wanted Thomas there—not watching from the gallery or standing next to the chief resident, Dr. William Longmire, or the intern, Dr. Denton Cooley, or next to Dr. Taussig at the foot of the operating table. Blalock insisted Thomas stand at his elbow, on a step stool where he could see what Blalock was doing. After all, Thomas had done the procedure dozens of times; Blalock only once, as Vivien’s assistant.
Nothing in the laboratory had prepared either one for what they saw when Blalock opened Eileen’s chest. Her blood vessels weren’t even half the size of those in the experimental animals used to develop the procedure, and they were full of the thick, dark, “blue” blood characteristic of cyanotic children. When Blalock exposed the pulmonary artery, then the subclavian—the two “pipes” he planned to reconnect—he turned to Thomas. “Will the subclavian reach the pulmonary once it’s cut off and divided?” he asked. Thomas said it would.
Blalock’s scalpel moved swiftly to the point of no return. He cut into the pulmonary artery, creating the opening into which he would sew the divided subclavian artery. “Is the incision long enough?” he asked Thomas. “Yes, if not too long,” the reply came.
In and out of the arteries flashed the straight half-inch needle that Thomas had cut and sharpened. “Is this all right, Vivien?” Blalock asked as he began joining the smooth inner linings of the two arteries. Then, a moment later, with one or two sutures in place: “Are those bites close enough together?”
Thomas watched. In such small arteries, a fraction of a millimeter was critical, and the direction of the sutures determined whether the inside of the vessels would knit properly. If Blalock began a suture in the wrong direction, Thomas’s voice would come quietly over his shoulder: “The other direction, Dr. Blalock.”
Finally, off came the bulldog clamps that had stopped the flow of blood during the operation. The anastomosis began to function, shunting the pure blue blood through the pulmonary artery into the lungs to be oxygenated. Underneath the sterile drapes, Eileen turned pink.
“You’ve never seen anything so dramatic,” Thomas says on the tape. “It was almost a miracle.”
Almost overnight, Operating Room 706 became “the heart room,” as dozens of Blue Babies and their parents came to Hopkins from all over the United States, then from abroad, spilling over into rooms on six floors of the hospital. For the next year, Blalock and Longmire rebuilt hearts virtually around the clock. One after another, cyanotic children who had never been able to sit upright began standing at their crib rails, pink and healthy.
It was the beginning of modern cardiac surgery, but to Thomas it looked like chaos. Blue Babies arrived daily, yet Hopkins had no cardiac ward, no catheterization lab, no sophisticated apparatus for blood studies. They had only Vivien Thomas, who flew from one end of the Hopkins complex to the other without appearing to hurry.
From his spot at Blalock’s shoulder in the operating room, Thomas would race to the wards, where he would take arterial blood samples on the Blue Babies scheduled for surgery, hand off the samples to another technician in the hallway, return to the heart room for the next operation, head for the lab to begin the blood-oxygen studies, then go back to his spot in the OR.
“Only Vivien is to stand there,” Blalock would tell anyone who moved into the space behind his right shoulder.
Each morning at 7:30, the great screened windows of Room 706 would be thrown open, the electric fan trained on Dr. Blalock, and the four-inch beam of the portable spotlight focused on the operating field. At the slightest movement of light or fan, Blalock would yell at top voice, at which point his orderly would readjust both.
Then the perspiring Professor would complete the procedure, venting his tension with a whine so distinctive that a generation of surgeons still imitate it. “Must I operate all alone? Won’t somebody please help me?” he’d ask plaintively, stomping his soft white tennis shoes and looking around at the team standing ready to execute his every order. And lest Thomas look away, Blalock would plead over his shoulder, “Now you watch, Vivien, and don’t let me put these sutures in wrong!”
Visitors had never seen anything like it. More than Blalock’s whine, it was Thomas’s presence that mystified the distinguished surgeons who came from all over the world to witness the operation. They could see that the black man on the stool behind Dr. Blalock was not an MD. He was not scrubbed in as an assistant, and he never touched the patients. Why did the famous doctor keep turning to him for advice?
If outsiders puzzled at Thomas’s role, the surgical team took it as a matter of course. “Who else but Vivien could have answered those technical questions?” asks Dr. William Longmire, now professor emeritus at UCLA’s School of Medicine. “Dr. Blalock was plowing new ground beyond the horizons we’d ever seen before. Nobody knew how to do this.”
“It was a question of trust,” says Dr. Alex Haller, who was trained by Thomas and now is surgeon-in-chief at Hopkins. Sooner or later, he says, all the stories circle back to that moment when Thomas and Blalock stood together in the operating room for the first Blue Baby. Had Blalock not believed in Thomas’s lab results with the tetralogy operation, he would never have dared to open Eileen Saxon’s chest.
“Once Dr. Blalock accepted you as a colleague, he trusted you completely—I mean, with his life,” Haller says. After his patients, nothing mattered more to Blalock than his research and his “boys,” as he called his residents. To Thomas he entrusted both and, in so doing, doubled his legacy.
“Dr. Blalock let us know in no uncertain terms, ‘When Vivien speaks, he’s speaking for me,’“ remembers Dr. David Sabiston, who left Hopkins in 1964 to chair Duke University’s department of surgery. “We revered him as we did our professor.”
To Blalock’s “boys,” Thomas became the model of a surgeon. “Dr. Blalock was a great scientist, a great thinker, a leader,” explains Denton Cooley, “but by no stretch of the imagination could he be considered a great cutting surgeon. Vivien was.”
What passed from Thomas’s hands to the surgical residents who would come to be known as “the Old Hands” was vascular surgery in the making—much of it of Thomas’s making. He translated Blalock’s concepts into reality, devising techniques, even entire operations, where none had existed.
In any other hospital, Thomas’s functions as research consultant and surgical instruction might have been filled by as many as four specialists. Yet Thomas was always the patient teacher. And he never lost his sense of humor.
“I remember one time,” says Haller, “when I was a medical student, I was working on a research project with a senior surgical resident who was a very slow operator. The procedure we were doing would ordinarily have taken an hour, but it had taken us six or seven hours, on this one dog that had been asleep all that time. There I was, in one position for hours, and I was about to die.
“Well, finally, the resident realized that the dog hadn’t had any fluids intravenously, so he called over to Vivien, ‘Vivien, would you come over and administer some I-V fluids?’ Now, the whole time Vivien had been watching us out of the corner of his eye from across the lab, not saying a word, but not missing a thing, either. I must have looked white as a ghost, because when he came over with the I-V needle, he sat down at my foot, tugged at my pants leg, and said, ‘Which leg shall I start the fluid in, Dr. Haller?’ “
The man who tugged at Haller’s pants leg administered one of the country’s most sophisticated surgical research programs. “He was strictly no-nonsense about the way he ran that lab,” Haller says. “Those dogs were treated like human patients.”
One of the experimental animals, Anna, took on legendary status as the first long-term survivor of the Blue Baby operation, taking up permanent residence in the Old Hunterian as Thomas’s pet. It was during “Anna’s era,” Haller says, that Thomas became surgeon-in-residence to the pets of Hopkins’s faculty and staff. On Friday afternoons, Thomas opened the Old Hunterian to the pet owners of Baltimore and presided over an afternoon clinic, gaining as much prestige in the veterinary community as he enjoyed within the medical school. “Vivien knew all the senior vets in Baltimore,” Haller explains, “and if they had a complicated surgical problem, they’d call on Vivien for advice, or simply ask him to operate on their animals.”
By the late 1940s, the Old Hunterian had become “Vivien’s domain,” says Haller. “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind as to who was in charge. Technically, a non-MD could not hold the position of laboratory supervisor. Dr. Blalock always had someone on the surgical staff nominally in charge, but it was Vivien who actually ran the place.”
As quietly as he had come through Hopkins’s door at Blalock’s side, Thomas began bringing in other black men, moving them into the role he had first carved out for himself. To the black technicians he trained—twenty of them over three decades—he was “Mr. Thomas.” a man who represented what they themselves might become. Two of the twenty went on to medical school, but most were men like Thomas, with only high school diplomas and no prospect of further education. Thomas trained them and sent them out with the Old Hands, who tried to duplicate the Blalock-Thomas magic in their own labs.
Perhaps none bears Thomas’s imprint more than Raymond Lee, a former elevator operator who became the first non-MD to serve on Hopkins’s cardiac surgical service as a physician’s assistant. For the Hopkins cardiac team headed by Drs. Vincent Gott arid Bruce Reitz, 1987 was a year of firsts, and Lee was part of both: In May, he assisted in a double heart-lung transplant, the first from a living donor; in August, he was a member of the Hopkins team that successfully separated Siamese twins.
Raymond Lee hasn’t come into the hospital on his day off to talk about his role in those historic 1987 operations. He has come “to talk about Mr. Thomas,” and as he does so, you begin to see why Alex Haller has described Lee as “another Vivien.” Lee speaks so softly you have to strain to hear him above the din of the admitting room. “It’s been almost 25 years,” he says, “since Mr. Thomas got a hold of me in the elevator of the Halsted Building and asked me if I might be interested in becoming a laboratory assistant.”
Along with surgical technique, Thomas imparted to his technicians his own philosophy. “Mr. Thomas would always tell us, ‘Everybody’s got a job to do. You are put here to do a job 100 percent, regardless of how much education you have.’ He believed that if you met the right people at the right time, and you can prove yourself, then you can achieve what you were meant to do.”
Alex Haller tells of another Thomas technician, a soft-spoken man named Alfred Casper: “After I’d completed my internship at Hopkins, I went to work in the lab at NIH. I was the only one in the lab, except for Casper. He had spent some time observing Vivien and working with him. We were operating together on one occasion, and we got into trouble with some massive bleeding in a pulmonary artery, which I was able to handle fairly well. Casper said to me, ‘Dr. Haller, I was very much impressed with the way you handled yourself there.’ Feeling overly proud of myself, I said to Casper, ‘Well, I trained with Dr. Blalock.’
“A few weeks later, we were operating together in the lab for a second time, and we got into even worse trouble. I literally did not know what to do. Casper immediately took over, placed the clamps appropriately, and got us out of trouble. I turned to him at the end of it and said, ‘I certainly appreciated the way you solved that problem. You handled your hands beautifully, too.’
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I trained with Vivien.’”
Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas: Their names intertwine, their partnership overshadowing the individual legacies they handed down to dozens of Hallers and Caspers. For more than three decades, the partnership endured, as Blalock ascended to fame, built up young men in his own image, then became a proud but reluctant bystander as they rose to dominate the field he had created.
As close as Blalock was to his protégés, they moved on. It was Thomas who remained, the one constant. From the first, Thomas had seen the worst and the best of Blalock. Thomas knew the famous Blue Baby doctor the world could not see: a profoundly conscientious surgeon, devastated by patient mortality and keenly aware of his own limitations.
In 1950, six years after he and Blalock had stood together for Blue Baby One, Blalock operated on Blue Baby 1,000. It was a triumphant moment—an occasion that called for a Yousuf Karsh portrait, a surprise party at the Blalock home, gifts of Scotch and bourbon, and a long evening of reminiscing with the Old Hands. Thomas almost wasn’t there.
As Blalock was laying plans for his 1947 “Blue Baby Tour” of Europe, Thomas was preparing to head back home to Nashville, for good. The problem was money. There was no provision in Hopkins’s salary classification for an anomaly like Thomas: a non-degreed technician with the responsibilities of a postdoctoral research fellow.
With no regret for the past, the 35-year-old Thomas took a hard look at the future and at his two daughters’ prospects for earning the degrees that had eluded him. Weighing the Hopkins pay scale against the postwar building boom in Nashville, he decided to head south to build houses.
“It’s a chance I have to take,” he told Blalock. “I don’t know what will happen if I leave Hopkins, but I know what will happen if I stay.” He made no salary demands, but simply announced his intention to leave, assuming that Blalock would be powerless against the system.
Two days before Christmas 1946, Blalock came to Thomas in the empty lab with Hopkins’s final salary offer, negotiated by Blalock and approved by the board of trustees that morning. “I hope you will accept this,” he told Thomas, drawing a file card from his pocket. “It’s the best I can do—it’s all I can do.”
The offer on the card left Thomas speechless: The trustees had doubled his salary and created a new bracket for non-degreed personnel deserving higher pay. From that moment, money ceased to be an issue.
Until Blalock’s retirement in 1964, the two men continued their partnership. The harmony between the idea man and the detail man never faltered. Blalock took care of patients, Thomas took care of research. Only their rhythm changed.
In the hectic Blue Baby years, Blalock would leave his hospital responsibilities at the door of the Old Hunterian at noon and closet himself with Thomas for a five-minute research update. In the evenings, with Thomas’s notes at one elbow and a glass of bourbon at the other, Blalock would phone Thomas from his study as he worked on scientific papers late into the night. “Vivien, I want you to listen to this,” he’d say before reading two or three sentences from the pad in his lap, asking, “Is that your impression?” or “is it all right if I say so-and-so?”
As the hectic pace of the late ‘40s slowed in the early ‘50s, the hurried noon visits and evening phone conversations gave way to long, relaxed exchanges through the open door between lab and office.
Along the way, Thomas and Blalock grew old together, Thomas gracefully, Blalock more reluctantly. Sidelined by deteriorating health, Blalock decided in the early 1950s that cardiac surgery was a young man’s field, so he turned over the development of the heart-lung machine to two of his superstars, Drs. Henry Bahnson and Frank Spencer. Today Bahnson is chairman emeritus of the department of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Spencer chairs the department of surgery at New York University.
Blalock told Thomas, “Let’s face it, Vivien, we’re getting older. These young fellows can do a much better job than I can. There’s no point in my beating myself out with them around. They’re good.”
But fifteen years at center stage had made it hard for Blalock to be a bystander. At the end of the 1950s, he fumed as pilot projects fizzled and he and Thomas fell to philosophizing about problems instead of solving them. “Damn it, Vivien,” he complained, “we must be getting old. We talk ourselves out of doing anything. Let’s do things like we used to and find out what happens.”
“You were lucky to have hit the jackpot twice,” Thomas answered, remembering that the good old days were, more often than not, sixteen-hour days. Besides, it was Blalock, 60 years old, recently widowed and in failing health, who was feeling old, not Thomas, then only 49. Perhaps Blalock was remembering what it had been like when he was 30 and Thomas 19, juggling a dozen research projects, working into the night, trying to “find out what happens.” By including Thomas in his own decline, Blalock was acknowledging something deeper than chronology: a common beginning.
From beginning to end, Thomas and Blalock maintained a delicate balance of closeness and distance. A few weeks before Blalock’s retirement in 1964, they closed out their partnership just as they had begun it—facing each other on two lab stools. It was Thomas who made the first move toward cutting the ties, but in the act of releasing Blalock from obligation he acknowledged how inextricably their fortunes were intertwined.
“I don’t know how you feel about it,” he said as Blalock mulled over postretirement offers from around the country, “but I’d just as soon you not include me in any of those plans. I feel as independent as I did in our earlier years, and I want you to be just as free in making your plans.”
“Thank you, Vivien,” Blalock said, then admitted he had no idea where he would go or what he would do after his retirement. “If you don’t stay at Hopkins,” he told Thomas, “you’ll be able to write your own ticket, wherever you want to go.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” Thomas smiled, “but I’ve been here for so long I don’t know what’s going on in the outside world.”
Weeks after the last research project had been ended, Blalock and Thomas made one final trip to the “heart room”—not the Room 706 of the early days, but a glistening new surgical suite Blalock had built with money from the now well-filled coffers of the department of surgery. The Old Hunterian, too, had been replaced by a state-of-the-art research facility.
By this time, Blalock was dying of ureteral cancer. Wearing a back brace as the result of a disc operation, he could barely stand. Down the seventh floor hallway of the Alfred Blalock Clinical Sciences Building they went: the white-haired Professor in his wheelchair; the tall, erect black man slowly pushing him while others rushed past them into the operating rooms.
Just before they reached the exit from the main corridor to the rotunda where Blalock’s portrait hung, he asked Thomas to stop so that he could get out of his wheelchair. He would walk out into the rotunda alone, he insisted.
“Seeing that he was unable to stand erect,” Thomas recalled later, “I asked if he wanted me to accompany him to the front of the hospital. His reply was, ‘No, don’t.’ I watched as with an almost 45-degree stoop and obviously in pain, he slowly disappeared through the exit.”
Blalock died three months later.
During his final illness Blalock said to a colleague: “I should have found a way to send Vivien to medical school.” It was the last time he would voice that sense of unfulfilled obligation.
Time and again, to one or another of his residents, Blalock had faulted himself for not helping Thomas to get a medical degree. Each time, remembers Dr. Henry Bahnson, “he’d comfort himself by saying that Vivien was doing famously what he did well, and that he had come a long way with Blalock’s help.”
But Thomas had not come the whole way. He had been Blalock’s “other hands” in the lab, had enhanced The Professor’s stature, had shaped dozens of dexterous surgeons as Blalock himself could not have—but a price had been paid, and Blalock knew it.
Blalock’s guilt was in no way diminished by his knowing that even with a medical degree, Thomas stood little chance of achieving the prominence of an Old Hand. His prospects in the medical establishment of the 1940s were spelled out by the only woman among Blalock’s “boys,” Dr. Rowena Spencer, a pediatric surgeon who as a medical student worked closely with Thomas.
In her commentary on Thomas’s career, published this year in A Century of Black Surgeons, Spencer puts to rest the question that Blalock wrestled with decades earlier. “It must have been said many times,” Spencer writes, “that ‘if only’ Vivien had had a proper medical education he might have accomplished a great deal more, but the truth of the matter is that as a black physician in that era, he would probably have had to spend all his time and energy making a living among an economically deprived black population.”
What neither Blalock nor Thomas could see as they parted company in June 1964 in the seventh-floor hallway of the Blalock Building was the rich recognition that would come to Thomas with the changing times.
It was the admiration and affection of the men he trained that Thomas valued most. Year after year, the Old Hands came back to visit, one at a time, and on February 27, 1971, all at once. From across the country they arrived, packing the Hopkins auditorium to present the portrait they had commissioned of “our colleague, Vivien Thomas.”
For the first time in 41 years, Thomas stood at center stage, feeling “quite humble,” he said, “but at the same time, just a little bit proud.” He rose to thank the distinguished gathering, his smiling presence contrasting with the serious, bespectacled Vivien Thomas in the portrait.
“You all have got me working on the operator’s side of the table this morning,” he told the standing-room-only audience. “It’s always just a few degrees warmer on the operator’s side than it is on his assistant’s when you get into the operating room!”
Thomas’s portrait was hung opposite The Professor’s in the lobby of the Blalock Building, almost 30 years from the day in 1941 that he and Blalock had come to Hopkins from Vanderbilt. Thomas, surprised that his portrait had been painted at all, said he was “astounded” by its placement. But it was the words of hospital president Dr. Russell Nelson that hit home: “There are all sorts of degrees and diplomas and certificates, but nothing equals recognition by your peers.”
Five years later, the recognition of Vivien Thomas’s achievements was complete when Johns Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate and an appointment to the medical-school faculty.
Thomas’s wife, Clara, still refers to her husband’s autobiography by Vivien’s title, Presentation of a Portrait: The Story of a Life, even though when it appeared in print two days after his death in 1985, it bore the more formal title of Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and His Work With Alfred Blalock. It is to her that the book is dedicated, and it was in her arms that he died, 52 years after their marriage.
Clara Thomas speaks proudly of her husband’s accomplishments, and matter-of-factly about the recognition that came late in his career. “After all, he could have worked all those years and gotten nothing at all,” she says, looking at the Hopkins diploma hanging in a corner of his study. “Vivien Theodore Thomas, Doctor of Laws,” it reads, a quiet reminder of the thunderous ovation Thomas received when he stood in his gold-and-sable academic robe on May 21, 1976, for the awarding of the degree. “The applause was so great that I felt very small,” Thomas wrote.
It is not Thomas’s diploma that guests first see when they visit the family’s home, but row upon row of children’s and grandchildren’s graduation pictures. Lining the walls of the living room, two generations in caps and gowns tell the story of the degrees that mattered more to Thomas than the one he gave up and the one he finally received.
At the Thomas home, the signs of Vivien’s hands are everywhere: in the backyard rose garden, the mahogany mantelpiece he made from an old piano top, the Victorian sofa he upholstered, the quilt his mother made from a design he had drawn when he was nine years old.
The book was the last work of Vivien Thomas’s life, and probably the most difficult. It was the Old Hands’ relentless campaign that finally convinced Vivien to turn his boxes of notes and files into an autobiography. He began writing just after his retirement in 1979, working through his illness with pancreatic cancer, indexing the book from his hospital bed following surgery, and putting it to rest, just before his death, with a 1985 copyright date.
Clara Thomas turns to the last page of the book, to a picture of Vivien standing with two young men, one a medical student, the other a cardiac surgeon. It was the surgeon whom Clara Thomas and her daughters asked to speak at Vivien’s funeral.
He is Dr. Levi Watkins, and the diplomas on his office wall tell a story. Watkins was an honors graduate of Tennessee State, the first black graduate of Vanderbilt University Medical School, and Johns Hopkins’s first black cardiac resident. Levi Watkins Jr. is everything Vivien Thomas might have been had he been born 40 years later.
That was what he and Thomas talked about the day they met in the hospital cafeteria, a few weeks after Watkins had come to Hopkins as an intern in 1971. “You’re the man in the picture,” he had said. And Thomas had smiled and invited him up to his office.
“He was so modest that I had to keep asking him, ‘What did you do to get your picture on the wall?’” says Watkins of his first meeting with a man who was for fourteen years “a colleague, a counselor, a friend.”
“Even though I only knew him a fraction of the time some of the other surgeons did, I felt very close to him. From the very beginning, there was this deeper bond between us: I knew that he had been where I had been, and I had been where he could not go.”
Both men were aware that their differences ran deep: Watkins, whose exposure to the early civil-rights movement as a parishioner of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had taught him to be “out front and vocal about minority participation”; and Thomas, whose upbringing in Louisiana and Tennessee in the early years of the century had taught him the opposite.
“I think Vivien admired what I did,” says Watkins, “but he knew that we were different. There was a generation’s difference between Vivien and me, and it was a big generation. Survival was a much stronger element in his background. Vivien was a trailblazer by his work.”
Watkins holds part of Thomas’s legacy in his hand as he speaks, a metal box called an Automatic Implantable Defibrillator. No larger than a cigarette package, Watkins’s AID is deceptively simple-looking. From inside a patient’s body, it monitors the heartbeat, shocking the heart back into normal rhythm each time it fibrillates.
“It was Vivien who helped me to work through the problems of testing this thing in the dog lab,” says Watkins, turning the little half-pound “heart shocker” in his hand and running his fingers along its two electrode wires. “It was my first research project when I joined the medical faculty, and Vivien’s last.” Only months after Thomas’s retirement in 1979, Watkins performed the first human implantation of the AID, winning a place in the long line of Hopkins cardiac pioneers.
But more than science passed from man to man over fourteen years. In the 60-year-old Thomas, the 26-year-old Watkins found a man with the ability to transcend the times and the circumspection to live within them. In their long talks in Thomas’s office, the young surgeon remembers that “he taught me to take the broad view, to try to understand Hopkins and its perspective on race. He talked about how powerful Hopkins was, how traditional. He was concerned with my being too political and antagonizing the people I had to work with. He would check on me from time to time, just to make sure everything was all right. He worried about my getting out there alone.”
It was “fatherly advice,” Watkins says fondly, “from a man who knew what it was like to be the only one.” When Thomas retired, one era ended and another began, for that was the year that Levi Watkins joined the medical-school admissions committee. Within four years, minority enrollment quadrupled. “When Vivien saw the number of black medical students increasing so dramatically, he was happy—he was happy, “ says Watkins.
Always one for gentle statements, Thomas celebrated the changing times on the last page of his book: Thomas is shown standing proudly next to Levi Watkins and a third-year medical student named Reginald Davis, who is holding his infant son. According to the caption, the photograph was taken in 1979 in front of the hospital’s Broadway entrance. But the true message lies in what the caption does not say: In 1941, the Broadway entrance was for whites only.
Had the photograph been taken eight years later, it might have included Thomas’s nephew, Koco Eaton, a 1987 graduate of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, trained as a sub-intern in surgery by the men his uncle had trained a generation earlier. Thomas did not live to see his nephew graduate, but he rejoiced at his admission. “I remember Vivien coming to me in my office,” says Watkins, “and telling me how much it meant to him to have all the doors open for Koco that had been closed to him.”
Up and down the halls of Hopkins, Koco Eaton turned heads—not because he was black, but because he was the nephew of Vivien Thomas.
It was on a summer afternoon in 1928 that Vivien Thomas says he learned the standard of perfection that won him so much esteem. He was just out of high school, working on the Fisk University maintenance crew to earn money for his college tuition. He had spent all morning fixing a piece of worn flooring in one of the faculty houses. Shortly after noon, the foreman came by to inspect.
“He took one look,” Thomas remembered, and said, ‘Thomas, that won’t do. I can tell you put it in.’ Without another word, he turned and left. I was stung, but I replaced the piece of flooring. This time I could barely discern which piece I had put in. ... Several days later the foreman said to me, ‘Thomas, you could have fixed that floor right in the first place.’ I knew that I had already learned the lesson, which I still remember and try to adhere to: Whatever you do, always do your best. ... I never had to repeat or redo another assignment.”
So it went for more than half a century. “The Master,” Rollins Hanlon called him the day he presented Thomas’s portrait on behalf of the Old Hands. Hanlon, the surgeon and scholar, spoke of Thomas’s hands, and of the man who was greater still; of the synergy of two great men, Thomas and Blalock.
Today, in heavy gilt frames, those two men silently look at each other from opposite walls of the Blalock Building, just as one morning 40 years ago they stood in silence at Hopkins. Thomas had surprised The Professor with an operation he had conceived, then kept secret until healing was completed. The first and only one conceived entirely by Thomas, it was a complex but now common operation called an atrial septectomy.
Using a canine model, he had found a way to improve circulation in patients whose great vessels were transposed. The problem had stymied Blalock for months, and now it seemed that Thomas had solved it.
“Neither he nor I spoke for some four or five minutes while he stood there examining the heart, running the tip of his finger back and forth through the moderate-sized defect in the atrial septum, feeling the healed edges of the defect. ... We examined the outside of the heart and found the suture line with most of the silk still intact. This was the only evidence that an incision had been made in the heart.
“Internal healing of the incision was without flaw. The sutures could not be seen from within, and on gross examination the edges of the defect were smooth and covered with endocardium. Dr. Blalock finally broke the silence by asking, Vivien, are you sure you did this?’ I answered in the affirmative, and then after a pause he said, `Well, this looks like something the Lord made.’”
Part I: The Ministry of Truth
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.
In 1984, George Orwell told the story of Winston Smith, an employee in the propaganda office of a totalitarian regime. Smith's job at the fictional Ministry of Truth was to destroy photographs and alter documents, remaking the past to fit the needs of the present. But 1984 came and went, along with Soviet communism. In the age of the Internet, nobody could tamper with the past that way. Could they?
Yes, we can. In fact, last week, Slate did.
We took the Ministry of Truth as our model. Here's how Orwell described its work:
As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of The Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place.
Slate can't erase all records the way Orwell's ministry did. But with digital technology, we can doctor photographs more effectively than ever. And that's what we did in last week's experiment. We altered four images from recent political history, took a fifth out of context, and mixed them with three unadulterated scenes. We wanted to test the power of photographic editing to warp people's memories.
We aren't the first to try Orwell's idea on real people. Elizabeth Loftus, an experimental psychologist, has been tampering with memories in her laboratory for nearly 40 years. Photo doctoring is just one of many techniques she has tested. In an experiment published three years ago, she and two colleagues demonstrated that altered images of political protests in Italy and China influenced Italian students' descriptions of those incidents. We wanted to see whether similar tampering could work in the United States.
We altered or fabricated five events: Sen. Joe Lieberman voting to convict President Clinton at his impeachment trial (Lieberman actually voted for acquittal); Vice President Cheney rebuking Sen. John Edwards in their debate for mentioning Cheney's lesbian daughter (in fact, Cheney thanked him); President Bush relaxing at his ranch with Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina (Bush was at the White House that day, and Clemens didn't visit the ranch); Hillary Clinton using Jeremiah Wright in a 2008 TV ad (she never did); and President Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (it never happened).
We mixed these fake incidents with three real ones: the 2000 Florida recount, Colin Powell's prewar assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and the 2005 congressional vote to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. Each reader who participated in the experiment was shown the three true incidents and one randomly selected fake incident. He was told that all four incidents were true and was asked, picture by picture, whether he remembered each one. At the end, he was informed that one of the four incidents was fake and was instructed to guess which one. (All subjects were eventually shown the truth about the fake photos. To see the original photos and how we doctored them, click here.)
So, how did our subjects do?
In the first three days the experiment was posted, 5,279 subjects participated. All of the true incidents outscored the false ones. Our subjects were more likely to remember seeing Powell's Iraq presentation (75 percent), Katherine Harris presiding over the Florida recount (67 percent), or Tom DeLay leading the congressional effort to save Schiavo (50 percent) than any of the five fake scenes.
But the fake images were effective. Through random distribution, each fabricated scene was viewed by a subsample of more than 1,000 people. Fifteen percent of the Bush subsample (those who were shown the composite photo of Bush with Clemens) said they remembered seeing that incident at the time. Fifteen percent of the Lieberman subsample (those who were shown the altered screen shot of his impeachment vote) said they had seen it. For Obama meeting Ahmadinejad, the number who remembered seeing it was 26 percent. For the Hillary Clinton ad, the number was 36 percent. For the Edwards-Cheney confrontation, it was 42 percent, just seven points shy of the percentage who remembered seeing the DeLay/Schiavo episode.
When we pooled these subjects with those who remembered the false events but didn't specifically remember seeing them, the numbers nearly doubled. For Bush, the percentage who remembered the false event was 31. For Lieberman, it was 41. For Obama, it was 47. For Cheney, it was 65. For Hillary Clinton, it was 68.
These figures match previous findings. In memory-implanting experiments, the average rate of false memories is about 30 percent. But when visual images are used to substantiate the bogus memory, the number can increase. Several years ago, researchers using doctored photos persuaded 10 of 20 college students that they had gone up in hot-air balloons as children. Seeing is believing, even when what you're seeing is fabricated.
Some of our subjects apparently meant that they remembered the general episode—the impeachment trial, the Katrina fiasco, the Wright ad—not the precise fiction we depicted. "Don't remember the Lieberman part," one subject wrote. "Don't recall if it was Clemens," said another. But others reported clear memories. "Big Astros fan, live in Texas, very much remember this," one subject wrote, referring to the Bush-Clemens incident. Another said of the Wright ad, "I live in the Philly TV market: I definitely remember." A third added, "At that time I was backing Hillary for President. I didn't like it that she used this rather sleazy ad, but her campaign did remove it." (To read subjects' recollections of the false events, click .)
Ideology influenced recollections, but not consistently. Thirty-four percent of progressives who were shown the Bush-Clemens photo (212 out of 616) remembered that incident, while only 14 percent of conservatives who saw the same photo (7 out of 49) remembered it. We expected that discrepancy to be reversed among subjects who were shown the Obama handshake, but it wasn't. Progressives were slightly more likely than conservatives to remember that the handshake happened: 49 percent (305 out of 618) to 45 percent (30 out of 66). As expected, however, conservatives were more likely than progressives to remember actually seeing the handshake (36 percent to 26 percent) and less likely to remember seeing Bush with Clemens during Katrina (10 percent to 16 percent).
At the end of the experiment, we gave our subjects a second chance to distinguish the true events from the false ones. We told them that one of the four incidents was fake and asked them to guess which one. (This time, we didn't show the photos.) Among subjects who had previously remembered seeing the fake incident, 58 percent selected one of the true incidents as the false one. When we pooled subjects who thought they had seen the fake incident with those who merely remembered it, we still found that among this broader group—50 percent of our sample—most, when prompted to guess which incident was fake, picked the wrong one. And when we looked at the whole sample, including people who initially hadn't remembered the fabricated event, 37 percent still guessed wrong. They couldn't tell the fake event from the real ones.
Four of the fake incidents were tainted by essential truths. Lieberman did rebuke President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. Cheney did rebuke Sen. John Kerry for mentioning Cheney's lesbian daughter, though not until well after the vice presidential debate. Bush was in Crawford during Hurricane Katrina. And Republicans did distribute a Jeremiah Wright ad. These truths may have confused some of our subjects. But what about the Obama-Ahmadinejad handshake? There's no question of a true incident being misremembered: The two men have never been physically close enough to be photographed together. (We searched for them in Google Images and gave up after scanning 500 results.) And this incident is supposed to have taken place barely a year ago. Yet 47 percent of subjects who were shown the Obama photo remembered the handshake, and 26 percent remembered seeing it.
When the 47 percent who remembered the handshake were asked to guess which incident was fake, most chose one of the true incidents instead. In fact, 35 percent of all subjects who saw the handshake photo guessed that the handshake was real and that one of the authentic episodes—the Schiavo legislation, the Powell presentation, or the Florida recount—was the fake one. Their recollections of the handshake were often quite clear. "I saw the news footage," said one. "The Chicago Trib had a big picture of this meeting," said another. "I don't remember the picture but I seem to recall he shook hands," said a third. "I remember most the political hay Republican bloggers made about the handshake," said a fourth.
The comments, like the data, illustrate the power of doctored images. In a sample of a highly educated and informed subjects—Slate readers—half came to remember bogus political stories as true. Even when they were told that one of the four incidents they had seen was fake, and even when that incident was a complete fabrication, half of this deceived group—and 37 percent of the overall sample—couldn't guess which one. A modern-day Ministry of Truth could alter memories on a mass scale.
But that isn't the scary part. The scary part is that your memories have already been altered. Much of what you recall about your life never happened, or it happened in a very different way. Sometimes our false memories have done terrible things. They have sent innocent people to jail. They have ruined families with accusations of sexual abuse.
These are the tragedies that drive the work of Dr. Loftus, whose research inspired our experiment. To understand our minds and how they can be manipulated, she plants memories. Tomorrow, we'll begin to look at the techniques she has learned—and what to do with them.
Part II: Removable Truths
In the fall of 1991, Elizabeth Loftus sat in her office at the University of Washington, listening to a tape-recorded story. The storyteller, a 14-year-old boy named Chris Coan, was describing a visit to the University City shopping mall in Spokane, Wash., when he was 5. "I think I went over to look at the toy store, the Kay-Bee toys," he recalled. "We got lost, and I was looking around and I thought, 'Uh-oh. I'm in trouble now.' " He remembered his feelings: "I thought I was never going to see my family again. I was really scared, you know. And then this old man, I think he was wearing a blue flannel, came up to me." The man, old and balding with glasses, helped Chris find his parents.
It was a vivid story, told with sincerity and emotion. But the events Chris described had never happened. Chris's elder brother, Jim, had made it up as an assignment for Loftus' cognitive psychology class. Jim, pretending the story was real, had fed Chris the basics—the name of the mall, the old man, the flannel shirt, the crying—and Chris, believing his brother's fabrication, had filled in the rest. He had proved what Loftus suspected: If you were carefully coached to remember something, and if you tried hard enough, you could do it.
And this was just the beginning. In the years to come, Loftus and her colleagues would plant false memories of all kinds—chokings, near-drownings, animal attacks, demonic possessions—in thousands of people. Their parade of brainwashing experiments continues to this day.
Forty years ago, when Loftus came out of graduate school, most people thought of memory as a recording device. It stored imprints of what you had experienced, and you could retrieve these imprints when prompted by questions or images. Loftus began to show that this wasn't true. Questions and images didn't just retrieve memories. They altered them. In fact, they could create memories that were completely unreal.
Most of the time, this didn't matter. If Uncle Pete hadn't really caught that 18-inch trout, so what? But in court, it mattered. Men were going to jail based on contaminated eyewitness testimony. Families were being ruined by charges of incestuous abuse drawn from memories concocted in therapy.
Loftus set out to prove that such memories could have been planted. To do so, she had to replicate the process. She had to make people remember, as sincerely and convincingly as any sworn witness, things that had never happened. And she succeeded. Her experiments shattered the legal system's credulity. Thanks to her ingenuity and persistence, the witch hunts of the recovered-memory era subsided.
But the experiments didn't stop. Loftus and her collaborators had become experts at planting memories. Couldn't they do something good with that power? So they began to practice deception for real. With a simple autobiographical tweak—altering people's recollections of childhood eating experiences—they embarked on a new project: making the world healthier and happier.
It was almost a kind of forgetting. You start doing something to show how dangerous it is. Pretty soon, you're good at it. It becomes your craft, your identity. You begin to invent new applications and justifications for it. In changing others, you change yourself.
To understand Elizabeth Loftus, I spent many hours reading her work and talking with her. I came away impressed by her thoughtfulness and curiosity. I was shaken, as others have been, by her research on memory's fallibility. But I was struck even more by Loftus herself. Something has happened to her. She is grappling with something nobody has fully confronted before: the temptation of memory engineering.
This is the story of a woman who has learned how to alter the past as we know it. It's a fantastic power: exciting to some, frightening to others. What will we do with it? How will it change us? In her story, we can begin to see what awaits us.
Beth Fishman, the girl who would become Elizabeth Loftus, was born in October 1944. She grew up in Bel Air, Calif., the daughter of a Santa Monica doctor. When she was 6, a baby-sitter molested her. He stroked her arms and told her to keep "our secret." Then he led her to her parents' bedroom, took off her clothes, and rubbed his genitals against hers. She never told her parents what had happened. She didn't forget it, but she put it behind her. In her mind, she wrote later, her abuser was "gone, vanished, sucked away. My memory took him and destroyed him."
In her adolescent years, she kept a diary and feared that somebody might read it. In fact, her boyfriend did try to read it. Other girls solved this problem by censoring their diaries. But Beth had a better idea. When she wanted to say something deeply painful or private, she recorded it on a separate piece of paper and clipped it to her diary. That way, if her boyfriend asked to read the diary, she could unclip the attached notes before handing it over. They were, as she described them later, "my removable truths."
Removing truths from a diary was one thing. Removing them from history or memory was another. Once, Beth heard that a boyfriend had broken up with her because she was Jewish. Hoping that he would reconsider, she asked a friend to tell him, falsely, that she was only half-Jewish. The lie proved no more forgettable than the truth. Fifty years later, during a speech in Israel, she would burst into tears as she recalled this fabrication. "Which of my parents did I deny then?" she asked. "Which half of me did I throw away for such a cheap price?"
When Beth was 14, her mother drowned in a swimming pool. The obituary called it an accident, but Beth's father suspected suicide. Only God knew the truth, and the bereft girl decided that God, having failed to intervene, was a fiction. What had really happened? No one would ever know.
For a year afterward, Beth wrote letters to her dead mother, telling her how much she missed her. She excoriated herself for having failed to express her love when it mattered. In one of her removable notes, she wrote,
"MY GREATEST REGRET: Many nights, such as tonight, September 23, 1959, I lie awake and think about my mother. Always, I start to cry, and my thoughts trace back to the days when she was alive and ill. She would be watching TV and ask me to come sit by her. 'I'm busy now,' was my usual reply. Other times, she would be in my room, and we would get in fights because she wouldn't leave. Oh, how I hate myself for that! With a little bit of kindness from her only daughter she might have been so much happier."
But the girl couldn't change what she had done. Nor could she unclip the note and make her mother's death, or the pain that followed it, go away.
Two years after she lost her mother, Beth lost her home. A brush fire destroyed her house while sparing the rest of the block. She stood outside the burning building, clutching a Teddy bear and staring at the flames. Around her, rescued by neighbors, lay the remains of her childhood: chairs, drawers, stuffed animals. So much had been lost. What tortured her most was the disappearance of her diaries, which, to her relief, she eventually recovered. She wasn't afraid of losing them to the fire. She was afraid that they might fall into somebody else's hands.
A weaker girl might have crumbled under these losses. But Beth pressed on. She became a workaholic and obsessive achiever. She threw herself into math, the one subject she could get her father to talk about. Then, as an undergraduate at UCLA, she discovered something more captivating: the study of the mind.
People were much more interesting than numbers. In their actions and reactions, the laws of nature came to life. Her favorite psychologist was B.F. Skinner. From his writings and experiments, she learned that rewards and punishments could control and explain animal behavior. By systematically rewarding a behavior, you could reinforce it.
She was fascinated. But what excited her most was watching the process unfold in her own hands. She was given a rat and a cage—a "Skinner box"—in which to train it. By selectively administering food during a series of repetitions, she taught the rat to look at, then approach, then press a lever. By the time she was done, the rat had learned to run straight to the lever as soon as it was put in the cage. She had made the animal do her bidding.
In 1966, she entered Stanford's graduate program in mathematical psychology. She might as well have walked into a men's locker room. She was the only woman admitted to the program that year. All her professors were men. Her classmates unanimously voted her least likely to succeed as a psychologist. They placed bets on when she'd quit. The betting pool turned out to be a damning test of mathematical psychology. Its abstract equations, designed to explain and predict behavior, couldn't account for the particulars of this young woman. She had lost her home and her mother. Compared with that, exams were easy.
She soon outgrew the boys' game. The deeper she waded into mathematical psychology, the less she liked its simplifications. People were more complicated than that. So was she. In her second year at Stanford, she was assigned to mentor an incoming student. She married him instead. On June 30, 1968, she became Elizabeth Loftus.
She thought she had found the love of her life. She would serve her husband's career, just as her mother had done for her father. But then she fell in love again. Not with a person, but with a field of study: memory.
Part III: Leading the Witness
In 1968, Elizabeth Loftus discovered what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to experiment on people.
Loftus was 24. For several years, she had studied psychology and helped her professors with their research. She had been a cog in the academic system. But now, in her third year of graduate school at Stanford, she was finally getting a chance to design, run, and analyze her own experiments. She knew the thrill of training a rat to press a lever. But this was different. Now she was working with human beings.
Her topic was semantic memory. She was trying to find out how people's brains stored and retrieved words. She couldn't see inside their heads, but she could administer inputs and measure outputs, as she had done with her rat. The inputs were questions, and the output was response time. Sometimes she asked her subjects to name a "yellow fruit." Sometimes she asked them to name a "fruit that is yellow." On average, they answered the latter question a quarter of a second faster than the former. From this, she drew an inference: The brain organized such information by the noun, not the adjective.
Loftus loved the whole thing: conceiving the experiment, trying it out on people, measuring their performance, drawing conclusions about the mind. But not everyone was impressed. Shortly after earning her Ph.D., she had lunch in New York with her cousin, a lawyer. When her cousin asked about her work, Loftus proudly told her about the yellow-fruit study. Her cousin dryly asked how much it had cost the government.
The conversation stung Loftus. She was running her own memory experiments, but they were just about words. Why did it matter how people recalled yellow fruit? Wasn't there something more worthwhile to study?
What did she really care about? As an experimental psychologist, she decided to answer the question by studying her own behavior. What did she talk about when the topic was hers to choose? What did she like to bring up at parties? The answer was crime. She loved books, movies, TV shows, and news stories about it. Maybe she could become a crime expert. She could use the science of memory to help the justice system.
The first step was to find a project somebody would pay for. The Department of Transportation was offering money to study car accidents. Accidents weren't crimes, but they involved eyewitnesses, so she started there. She showed people films of collisions and quizzed them about what they had seen. Sometimes she asked how fast the cars had been going when they "hit" or "contacted" each other. Sometimes she asked how fast they had been going when they "smashed" into each other. The "smashed" question produced estimates 7 miles per hour faster than the "hit" question and 9 miles per hour faster than the "contacted" question. The questions were skewing the answers.
In another experiment, she showed her subjects a multi-car collision and asked some of them, "Did you see a broken headlight?" She asked others a leading version of the question: "Did you see the broken headlight?" Of the six questions posed in this dual format, three referred to things that weren't in the film. Compared with subjects who heard the question with an "a," those who heard it with a "the" were twice as likely to say they had seen a bogus item. (To experience one of Loftus' traffic experiments, click on the adjacent , "Follow That Car.")
Still, that was just lab work. Loftus wanted to get involved in a real court case. In 1973, after moving to the University of Washington, she called up the Seattle public defender's office and volunteered to help as a memory expert. In exchange, she got to watch the case unfold. It was a murder trial that hinged on conflicting memories over how much time had elapsed for premeditation. It ended in acquittal.
Loftus packaged her memory expertise with her accident studies in an article for Psychology Today. She challenged the reliability of eyewitness testimony, mentioned her work in the Seattle murder case, and noted that the defendant had been acquitted. It was practically an advertisement. Attorneys read the article and picked up their phones. Her career in legal consulting was launched.
She was exactly what defense lawyers needed. The chief threat to their clients was incriminating witness testimony. Loftus could shake the jury's faith in such recollections without attacking the witness personally. Memory errors were natural. The witness, like the defendant, was innocent. Even police, who caused misidentifications by contaminating witnesses' memories with mug shots and lineups, often didn't realize what they were doing.
Over the next 35 years, Loftus testified as a memory expert in more than 250 hearings and trials. She worked dozens of famous cases: Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Oliver North, Martha Stewart, Lewis Libby, Michael Jackson, the Menendez brothers, the Oklahoma City bombing, and many more.
Why did a woman who had endured assault in her own life defend accused predators? Part of it was the structure of criminal law: Her work created doubt, and doubt was an ally of the defense. Part of it was her empathy for the accused: She had always been suspicious of criminal allegations and lenient toward small-time offenders. And where empathy failed, scientific rigor took over. Memory's fallibility was a fact. By testifying to that fact, she believed she was serving justice.
Loftus alters Lesley Stahl's eyewitness memory
Her job was to explain how memory errors could contaminate eyewitness testimony. For example, when eyewitnesses were shown lineups of possible culprits, they sometimes selected a face that was familiar for a different reason. Loftus demonstrated this by showing experimental subjects six photos while they listened to a crime story. One photo depicted the culprit; the others depicted innocent characters in the story. Three days later, she showed the same subjects a photo of one of the innocent characters along with three photos of other people. From these four pictures, she asked them to pick the criminal. Twenty-four percent of the subjects correctly refused to pick a photo. Sixteen percent picked one of the three new photos. Sixty percent picked the photo of the innocent character. They remembered it from the crime story but confused it with the perpetrator.
Police lineups worsened this confusion. In another experiment, after watching a mock crime, subjects were offered a lineup that didn't include the perpetrator. One-third of them picked somebody anyway. But when the cops conveyed extra confidence—"We have the culprit and he's in the lineup"—78 percent of the subjects picked somebody.
Then there were prosecutions based on coached child testimony, such as the McMartin Preschool sex-abuse case. To measure children's suggestibility, Loftus and a colleague showed them several one-minute films, followed by leading questions. "Did you see a boat?" they asked one child. Afterward, the child remembered "some boats in the water." "Did you see some candles start the fire?" they asked another. "The candle made the fire," the child said later. Other kids, after being asked about bees and bears, recalled bees and bears. None of these things—bees, bears, boats, candles—were in the films.
Not even Loftus was immune to suggestion. In 1988, after 13 years of testifying about memory's fallibility, she was told by her uncle that she was the one who had found her dead mother in the swimming pool. The sights and sounds of that awful morning came back to her—the corpse face down, the nightgown, the screaming, the stretcher, the police cars. But within three days, her uncle recanted the story, and other relatives confirmed that her aunt, not Loftus, had found the body. The memories of the memory expert were false.
The incident strengthened Loftus' conviction that such recollections shouldn't be trusted in court. The more cases she saw, the more passionate she became about her work. She saw herself as Oskar Schindler, rescuing as many innocent souls as she could. "The beauty I find in helping the falsely accused is something I like about myself," she wrote in an essay years later. "It's the deeper part of who I am."
The passion and the work took their toll. In court, she endured cross-examination and vilification. And at home, her husband gave up competing for her attention. In 1991, they divorced.
But by then, she had a bigger problem.
In the summer of 1990, Elizabeth Loftus got a phone call from an attorney in San Francisco. A man named George Franklin had been charged with murdering a child, based on the recollection of his daughter, Eileen. Loftus, a psychologist, had testified in dozens of cases about the fallibility of eyewitness memory. But this case was different. The murder had happened 21 years earlier. Eileen's purported memory, however, was less than a year old. According to the prosecution, she had repressed it.
Repressed? How could such a crucial memory vanish for 20 years, leaving its owner completely unaware of its existence, and then resurface in full color? Loftus had her own bad childhood memory—being molested when she was 6—but she had never purged it. She searched the psychological literature and found no basis for the repression theory. George Franklin's attorney had a different theory: Eileen Franklin had never seen the crime. In her head, she had blended details of the murder, as it was reported in the press, with an imaginary picture of her father doing it. She had developed a false memory.
At the trial, Loftus explained how memories naturally eroded over time and became susceptible to distortion. She told the jury about an experiment in which she had shown people a video of a robbery and shooting. After the video, the viewers had watched an erroneous television report about the shooting. When they were asked afterward to describe the incident, many of them blended false details from the television report with their recollections of the video. They clung to these altered memories even when the experimenters suggested that they might be mistaken. Something like that must have happened to Eileen Franklin.
In previous cases, such testimony had swayed juries. But not this time. The prosecutor forced Loftus to admit that she had never studied memories like Eileen Franklin's. Loftus had proved that people could misidentify random perpetrators, not that they could mistakenly accuse their own fathers. She had proved that memories could be altered, not that they could be wholly invented. Her work seemed irrelevant. In November 1990, George Franklin was convicted.
The nightmare was just beginning. Repressed memories were surfacing everywhere. In June 1991, Marilyn Van Derbur, a former Miss America, told the world that at age 24, she had discovered her father's sexual abuse of her as a child. Later that year, Roseanne Barr claimed to have recovered 30-year-old memories of both parents molesting her. ("He used to chase me with his excrement and try to put it on my head," she said of her father.) Women were suing their parents for millions of dollars. Hundreds of accused families sought help.
If these memories weren't real, where were they coming from? Eileen Franklin claimed that her memory had surfaced during hypnosis, therapy, a dream, or a flashback. Barr said hers had emerged during individual and group therapy.
Loftus began to read popular books that told women and therapists how to recover memories of sexual abuse. The books urged therapists to ask their clients about childhood incest. They listed symptoms that supposedly indicated abuse even if it wasn't remembered. They invited women to search for memories by imagining the abuse. They encouraged group therapy in which women could hear one another's stories of being victimized.
These ideas sounded fishy. Suggestion, indoctrination, authority, inference, imagination, and immersion were known to alter memories in police interrogations and experiments. But could they create a whole memory? Could the recent surge of incest recollections be the product of recovered-memory therapy?
To find out, Loftus went to a talk by George Ganaway, a respected psychiatrist, at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in August 1991. Armed with case studies, Ganaway argued that "iatrogenic implantation"—implantation by therapists—was creating false memories of satanic ritual abuse.
Loftus suspected the same phenomenon was creating incest memories more broadly. But how could she expose it? In her book, The Myth of Repressed Memory, she described her next thought:
"While I couldn't prove that a particular memory emerging from therapy was false, perhaps I could step around to the other side of the problem. Through careful experimental design and controlled studies, perhaps I could provide a theoretical framework for the creation of false memories, showing that it is possible to create an entire memory for a traumatic event that never happened."
This was a pivotal decision. Loftus wasn't a detective. She was a designer of experiments. She couldn't start with seemingly recovered memories and demonstrate that they were false. But she could start with false memories and demonstrate how they were seemingly recovered.
Piece by piece, she analyzed and incorporated her adversaries' methods. For example, she noted in her book, "to parallel the therapeutic process, the memory had to be implanted by someone the subject trusted and admired, either a relative, friend, or a respected authority figure." That insight led to what became known as the "lost-in-the-mall experiment." (For more on the genesis of this experiment, see Part 2.) Each subject was given summaries of four incidents from his childhood. Three stories were true; one was false. The false story followed a formula: You got lost in a mall or department store, you cried, you were found by an old person. The summaries were written with the help of older relatives who knew the true incidents and the family. One woman, for example, was falsely told:
You, your mom, Tien, and Tuan all went to the Bremerton K-Mart. You must have been 5 years old at the time. Your mom gave each of you some money to get a blueberry Icee. You ran ahead to get into the line first, and somehow lost your way in the store. Tien found you crying to an elderly Chinese woman. You three then went together to get an Icee.
Loftus speaking at the Beckman Center, March 2007
The subjects were told that their relatives had recalled all four incidents. They were asked to fill in the details of each incident or, if they couldn't remember it, to write, "I do not remember this." In follow-up interviews, they were asked to think more about each incident and to retrieve any additional details they could recall. Of the 24 people subjected to this procedure, six came to remember the fake story as true.
From this experiment, Loftus began to sketch what she called a "recipe" for planting memories. First, you needed the subject's trust. A therapist had that; so did a family member. Then, by suggesting that the incident might have happened, you planted a seed. The subject would think about it, and the idea, if not the scene, would start to become familiar. The people and places mentioned—Tien, blueberry Icees, the Bremerton K-Mart—would evoke real memories, and these would begin to blur with the suggested scenario. By coaxing the subject to imagine the scene, you could accelerate this confabulation. Gradually, she would add details, seizing authorship of the story and securing its authenticity. The fabrication was out of your hands now. The memory was hers.
Loftus speaking at the Beckman Center, March 2007
This recipe was what the incest-survivor books were unwittingly teaching. It was what the recovered-memory therapists, with equal folly, were practicing. They hooked their readers and clients with checklists of supposed symptoms: headaches, guilt, low self-esteem, fear of darkness. Then they induced collaboration. "Let yourself imagine or picture what might have happened to you," said one book. "Occasionally you may need a small verbal push to get started. Your guide may suggest some action that seems to arise naturally from the image you are picturing." The guide, a therapist, supplied personal knowledge to help the process along. Group therapy helped, too. The more incest memories a woman heard, the more plausible her own victimization became. The more images she absorbed, the easier it was to picture the scenes she had repressed.
The mall experiment had obvious flaws. It involved only 24 people. Getting lost was different from being sexually abused. And maybe the six people who bought the story really had gotten lost in a mall, even if their parents or siblings didn't remember it. So Loftus ran bolder experiments with more subjects, more trauma, and greater implausibility. She convinced people that they had nearly choked, had caught their parents having sex, or had seen a wounded animal after a bombing. Other researchers planted memories of nearly drowning, being hospitalized overnight, and being attacked by an animal. In one study, Loftus and her collaborators persuaded 18 percent of people that they had probably witnessed demonic possession.
Loftus speaking at the Center for Inquiry's World Congress, April 2009
Critics protested that Loftus still hadn't proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects. This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn't abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.
With each escalation and success, Loftus turned the tide of the cultural and legal war over repressed memories. Her experiments became potent evidence in court. Psychologists, judges, and initially credulous news organizations became skeptical of repressed memories. Many women retracted allegations of abuse. Lawsuits and regulators began to punish reckless therapists. The frenzy subsided.
For her courage in confronting this menace, Loftus was ostracized by clinical psychologists, denounced as an enemy of women, and accused of molesting her own children, though she had none. Armed guards accompanied her at lectures. And when she dared to reinvestigate a particularly compelling allegation of sexual abuse—the "Jane Doe" case—her university seized her files and barred her from publishing or discussing her findings. She persisted in the face of these ordeals because she refused to live in a world of lies.
That was the story she told about herself in books and interviews. And it was the truth. But not the whole truth.
Memory and Truth: The Mystery of Jane Doe
In the spring of 1997, an allegation of child sexual abuse shook up the debate over repressed memory. For several years, recollections of child abuse, ostensibly "recovered" in therapy, had been under attack in courtrooms and scientific journals. According to skeptics, these memories weren't real; they were unwitting products of suggestion and imagination. But this case was different. The alleged victim, known only as Jane Doe, had described the abuse on videotape at age 6 and again at age 17. In the second video, she appeared to recover the original memory. And this time, the memory couldn't be dismissed as a recent fabrication. Its corroboration was right there on the original tape.
Believers in repressed memory finally had their smoking gun. Expert witnesses began to present the case in court, citing it as proof that such memories were real. The tapes impressed many skeptics. But they didn't convince Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist who had led the campaign to discredit repressed memory. She refused to believe that two stories told by the same witness could corroborate each other. Loftus suspected that Jane Doe, like other accusers, was under the spell of a false memory. But the memory hadn't been planted in Jane the teenager. It had been planted in Jane the child.
Loftus understood that the past could be opaque. When she was 14, her own mother had drowned, either by accident or suicide. Loftus would never know which, and she had learned to accept that. As an expert witness in dozens of trials, she had made her peace with mystery. To acquit a defendant, reasonable doubt was enough.
But this mystery had to be solved. The power of the videotapes and the use of Jane's story in other court cases demanded an answer. What lay behind the tapes? What had really happened to this little girl? Loftus had to know. She had to leave her laboratory and become a detective.
Jane had accused her mother of abusing her. From the tapes, Loftus ascertained Jane's home county. She hired a private investigator to get records from the local courthouse. Using databases, obituaries, and Social Security death records, Loftus and a colleague, Melvin Guyer, identified Jane's father. They scoured files from the custody fight between Jane's parents. They found a psychological evaluation and a Child Protective Services report that cast doubt on Jane's story. They interviewed local doctors and nurses to debunk the medical evidence against Jane's mother.
Loftus interviewed Jane's mother at her home. She spent four hours with Jane's foster mother. Finally, she tracked down Jane's stepmother. She learned that Jane's brother, who was alleged to have witnessed the abuse, had denied it. She discovered that Jane's mother had cooked on a gas stove, which couldn't have caused the coil-shaped burns Jane had attributed to her.
Gradually, Loftus and Guyer pieced together a theory. The psychologist who evaluated Jane as a child had questioned whether the abuses were real or had been "communicated" to her. "She has told her story numerous times to a number of different people and she now sounds mechanical," his report noted. This matched a comment from Jane's stepmother. "That's how we finally got her—the sexual angle," the stepmother told Loftus, referring to the custody fight she and Jane's father had waged against Jane's mother. "We were building a case against this woman. We were going for broke."
From legal records, Loftus determined that the stepmother was the first person to whom Jane had reported her abuse. With that, the puzzle pieces fell into place. Loftus and Guyer surmised that Jane's accusations "may have originated in the mind of StepMom and were communicated to Jane" prior to her first taped interview. Jane's memory at age 17 was an honest retrieval of her original story. But the story was false.
Before Loftus could publish her report, Jane Doe struck back. She told Loftus' employer, the University of Washington, that Loftus had violated her privacy. The university seized Loftus' files and barred her from publishing or discussing her findings. It took Loftus two years to win a letter of exoneration and another six years to get rid of Jane's subsequent lawsuit, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court. By then, Loftus, furious with the University of Washington, had moved to the University of California at Irvine. In their report on Jane Doe, published in the Skeptical Inquirer in 2002, Loftus and Guyer affirmed their duty to uncover "the whole truth" and presented the results of their investigation.
Part V: Truth or Consequences?
By the turn of the century, Elizabeth Loftus was the world's most influential debunker of false memories. She had rescued defendants from mistaken eyewitness testimony and from the pedophile witch hunt of the repressed-memory movement. But two dangers lurked at the core of her work. She was learning more and more about how to manipulate beliefs. And her allegiance to truth was negotiable.
In 1989, when the Chinese government tried to alter memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Loftus used her knowledge of brainwashing to expose the deception. (For more on this episode and her writings on politics, see George Orwell's 1989.) In the case of Jane Doe, an alleged victim of child abuse, Loftus risked her career to find out what had really happened. And in her books about witness testimony and repressed memory, she drew her moral power from truth. She wrote with dismay of the "horrifying idea that our memories can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth." Quoting a fellow psychologist, she warned readers not "to accept a false reality as truth, for that is the very essence of madness." Memory was truth's guardian, and Loftus was memory's guardian.
But this picture, too, was part myth. Alongside the official story of her career, there was a shadow story. Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself. People remembered themselves as having given more to charity than they really had. They mentally airbrushed their behavior in marriages and relationships. They minimized what they had lost and embellished what they had chosen.
Like the clipped-on portions of Loftus' adolescent diary, memories could be conveniently adjusted. And this rewriting of history was no perversion. It seemed to Loftus such a common tendency that it must be a product of evolution. In short, it was natural. Its function, she surmised, was to promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression. And this theory matched her reflections about her own life and the lives of her friends: Often, happiness was more important than truth.
In court, Loftus never consciously faced this question. There, she believed, truth and happiness overlapped. False memories on the witness stand sent innocent people to jail, and this terrible consequence was unacceptable. But her faith in the rightness of her cause sometimes numbed her to the manipulative games defense lawyers played. In fact, Loftus was very good at these games. And, for a while, she played them. She left truth to fend for itself.
The most important game was jury selection. As attorneys became familiar with Loftus' expertise in psychology, they recruited her to be a jury consultant. Her job was to present the anticipated prosecution and defense arguments, in summary form, to several hundred people. Each respondent had to render a verdict. It was like political polling, but with a twist: Using the respondents' demographic data—age, occupation, sex, race, income—the consultant would compute which kinds of jurors the defense should seek or exclude. On a few occasions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Loftus did such work. She didn't love it, but she didn't refuse it, either.
In articles for legal journals, she deployed her expertise in juror psychology and her knowledge of how to alter beliefs. She counseled attorneys on jury selection and on coaching economists as expert witnesses to win bigger damage awards. In one article, she and a co-author suggested that lawyers might wish to "eliminate better-educated jurors who could serve as leaders in arguments against their clients."
Loftus wasn't a mercenary. She was just good at calculating the angles, and she didn't think anything terrible was at stake. The same was true of her work on advertising. In 1976, the Federal Trade Commission asked her to assess the power of ads to mislead consumers. She astutely dissected marketers' tactics, but she was equally capable of teaching them. A few years after the FTC job, an ad agency hired her to figure out how to get people to remember its client's product. There was nothing sneaky about the assignment. It was just a chance to use her talents and enjoy being wined and dined.
Loftus didn't care about ad consulting, so she didn't pursue it. But by the mid-1990s, her work on memory distortion was well-known, and others could see its business value. In 1996, she was approached by Kathryn Braun, a doctoral student in marketing. Starting in 1997, they collaborated on several articles about advertising's power to alter memories. They called this power insidious, warned that people should be educated about it, and stipulated that they didn't support intentional editing of consumers' pasts. But they also highlighted the "managerial opportunities" it presented.
Braun, Loftus, and their co-authors always disavowed deception. Yet they spelled out, for readers of Psychology & Marketing and the Journal of Advertising, exactly how their findings could be exploited. They analyzed which recollections were "better suited for memory revision": childhood memories in the case of Disney, college memories in the case of beer. They noted that since memory was fallible and malleable, advertisers could win back consumers who thought they'd had bad experiences with their products. From the advertiser's standpoint, they wrote, "you want the consumer to be involved enough that they process the false information" but "not so involved that … they notice the discrepancy between the advertising information and their own experience."
To illustrate the technique, Loftus and Braun drew up fake "Remember the Magic" print ads for Disney theme parks. The ads reminded readers of the parks' sights and sounds: Cinderella's castle, Space Mountain, meeting Mickey Mouse.
The researchers showed these ads to a group of college students, while other students saw a non-Disney ad instead. To ensure that the Disney ads wouldn't trigger true memories of shaking Mickey's hand, the researchers screened out students who reported up front that they had met a TV character at a theme park.
Of the students who were shown an ad featuring happy memories of meeting Mickey, 90 percent later reported increased confidence that this event had happened or might have happened to them. That was twice the percentage who reported such an increase in the control group. And compared with the control group, those who saw the Disney ad were significantly more likely to say that they fondly remembered visiting the park and that such visits had been central to their childhoods. Many who saw a different version featuring Bugs Bunny were convinced that they had met him at Disneyland