It’s easy to take things for granted – until they are gone. Denton Cooley, one of the most famous heart surgeons ever, died Friday, November 18, 2016 at the age of 96, a month or so after the passing of his wife of 67 years, Louise Thomas.
Dr. Cooley was a larger-than-life figure, both in Texas and in national medicine; his reputation as a pioneer and accomplished practitioner are both well-known and well-deserved. His personal list of accomplishments is legion, including:
- Pioneering development of the heart-lung machine first used in 1955
- Techniques for repair of congenital defects in children
- Co-development of techniques for repair of torn aortic aneurysms
- Bloodless heart surgery
- Techniques for removing pulmonary embolisms
- Techniques for implanting artificial aortic and mitral valves
- One of the first, and most successful, proponents of coronary artery bypass graft surgery
- Performing the first successful heart transplant in the U.S.
- World’s first implantation of a wholly artificial heart
- Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984
- Author or co-author of more than 1,400 scientific articles and 12 books
Cooley received his initial training at Johns Hopkins. Working with noted chest and heart surgeon Dr. Albert Blalock, he assisted in the first surgery to correct the congenital heart defect of a “blue baby” diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot, cementing his determination to make heart surgery his specialty. He started at Texas Methodist Hospital and the Baylor University College of Medicine working with Dr. Michael DeBakey. Their intense personal rivalry forced Cooley to move to St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital, which eventually birthed the Texas Heart Institute in 1962.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Texas Heart was the place to go for heart surgery in the U.S., because of the proficiency and skills of Cooley and his team. For many years, it was one of the largest volume cardiac surgery programs in the world. It was once estimated that Cooley and his team had performed over 100,000 open heart surgeries over the course of forty years. As other surgeons learned from Cooley, and his techniques spread and became standard practice, his team’s volume declined, but their technological preeminence and reputation held firm. His colleague, Dr. O. Howard Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute, stated that what Cooley accomplished, more than anything, was to make heart surgery “safe.” As Cooley once stated, “I find I am luckier when I work harder.”
Recognition, and sometimes controversy, followed him in Houston; his transplantation procedures were always cutting-edge and thus fraught with controversy (particularly related to the then new subject of “brain death” which wasn’t even a commonly used term back then). His feud with Dr. DeBakey; his constant pushing of the bounds of medicine and technology (leading to many successes and many legal battles); and his making and then losing a fortune in Texas real estate were all part of this extraordinary man’s life. Despite all this, he was revered as a “Southern Gentleman” – calm, approachable, polite and supremely self-confident.
In a lawsuit, Cooley was once asked on the witness stand by a lawyer if he thought he was the greatest heart surgeon in the world. Cooley replied yes. “Don’t you think that is being rather immodest?” the lawyer asked. “Perhaps,” he replied. “But remember, I am under oath.”
Dr. James T. Willerson, President of the Texas Heart Institute, said in a statement, “We have lost a dear friend and a transformational leader, but the world has lost a medical genius and a great humanitarian. Dr. Cooley dedicated his life to healing hearts, and the number of lives he saved and improved over the years cannot be counted.”
The CFA staff salutes the life, work and legacy of Dr. Denton Cooley.