Denton A. Cooley was born in 1920 in Houston, Texas. After receiving an M.D. in 1944 from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore, he completed a surgical residency under Dr. Alfred Blalock at that same institution. He then became the senior surgical registrar with Russell Brock at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. In 1951, he joined the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. In 1969, he resigned from Baylor to become chief surgeon at the Texas Heart Institute (THI), which he had founded in 1962.
Dr. Cooley’s career spanned the history of modern cardiovascular surgery. He developed many of today’s commonly used cardiovascular procedures and devices. He is best known for performing the first successful human heart transplant in the United States (1968), as well as the first clinical implants of mechanical devices - total artificial hearts (1969 and 1981) and a left ventricular assist device (1978) - as bridges to heart transplantation. However, many of his other contributions are equally important: the first successful carotid endarterectomy as well as techniques for repairing diseased heart valves, congenital cardiac anomalies, and aortic and ventricular aneurysms.
In the early days of open heart surgery, few cardiovascular surgeons did more than two operations per day. Dr. Cooley proved that a skilled surgeon could do up to 12 procedures per day. Because he used glucose rather than blood to prime the heart-lung machine, patients were spared unnecessary exposure to blood, and more operations could be performed. He and his team performed nearly 115,000 open heart operations. For these reasons, Dr. Cooley’s name became synonymous with medical and technical excellence.
Dr. Cooley’s innovations were not limited to the operating room or the laboratory. For example, he founded a managed health care plan that was the first to “bundle” cardiovascular services into one fixed fee, which saved millions of healthcare dollars. He established a number of educational programs at THI. Moreover, by serving as a spokesperson for cardiovascular technology, Dr. Cooley helped make cardiac assist devices, the artificial heart, and cardiac transplantation the lifesaving treatments that they are today.
Dr. Cooley authored or coauthored more than 1,300 scientific papers and 12 books. He was a member or honorary member of over 70 professional societies, including the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society, founded by THI surgical trainees in his honor. Among his more than 120 honors and awards are the National Medal of Technology; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award; the Rene Leriche Prize, the highest honor of the International Surgical Society; the Distinguished Service Award of the American Medical Association; the Gifted Teacher Award of the American College of Cardiology; the Theodore Roosevelt Award, given by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to a varsity athlete who has achieved national recognition in his profession; and the Grand Hamdan International Award for Medical Science. He also received honorary degrees from eight universities and honorary fellowships in eight Royal Colleges of Surgery. He was named distinguished alumnus at both The University of Texas and Johns Hopkins University.
Millions of people have been helped by Dr. Cooley’s surgical innovations. In presenting him with the Medal of Freedom, President Ronald Reagan acknowledged this fact by remarking that Dr. Cooley “has charted new territory in his search for ways to prolong and enrich human life.”
Dr. Cooley died Nov. 18, 2016.