Something the Lord Made tells the story of the 34-year partnership that begins in Depression Era Nashville in 1930 when Blalock (Alan Rickman) hires Thomas (Mos Def) as an assistant in his Vanderbilt University lab, expecting him to perform janitorial work. But Thomas’ remarkable manual dexterity and intellectual acumen confound Blalock’s expectations, and Thomas rapidly becomes indispensable as a research partner to Blalock in his forays into heart surgery.
The film traces the two men’s work when they move in 1941 from Vanderbilt to Johns Hopkins, an institution where the only black employees are janitors and where Thomas must enter by the back door. Together, they attack the heart problem of Tetralogy of Fallot, also known as Blue Baby Syndrome, and in so doing they open the field of heart surgery.
Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart Masterson), the pediatrician/cardiologist at Johns Hopkins, challenges Blalock to come up with a surgical solution for her Blue Babies. She needs a new ductus for them to oxygenate their blood.
The film dramatizes Blalock’s and Thomas’ fight to save the dying Blue Babies. Blalock praises Thomas’ surgical skill as being “like something the Lord made” and insists that Thomas coach him through the first Blue Baby surgery over the protests of Hopkins administrators. Yet outside the lab, they are separated by the prevailing racism of the time. Thomas attends Blalock’s parties as a bartender, moonlighting for extra income, and when Blalock is honored for the Blue Baby work at the segregated Belvedere Hotel, Thomas is not among the invited guests. Instead, he watches from behind a potted palm at the rear of the ballroom.
After Blalock’s death, Thomas continued his work at Johns Hopkins training surgeons. At the end of the film, in a formal ceremony, Hopkins recognized Thomas’ work and awarded him an honorary doctorate. A portrait of Thomas was placed on the walls of Johns Hopkins next to Blalock’s portrait, which had been hung there years earlier.