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1920 – 2016

DENTON A. COOLEY, M.D., 1920 – 2016

Denton A. Cooley, President Emeritus and Surgeon-in-Chief Emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute (THI), died on November 18, 2016, in Houston, Texas, surrounded by his beloved family. He was 96 years old.

Born in Houston on August 22, 1920, Dr. Cooley earned a B.A. in zoology from the University of Texas in 1941 and an M.D. from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1944. During his internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital under the direction of Dr. Alfred Blalock, he was an intern on the surgical team that performed the first Blalock-Taussig ("blue-baby") procedure.

Dr. Cooley began his residency in surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1945, but he was called up by the Army Medical Corps in 1946. He served as chief of surgical services at the 124th Station Hospital in Linz, Austria, completing his assignment in 1948. He returned to Johns Hopkins to complete his residency in 1950, after which he furthered his surgical training for an additional year in London with Lord Russell Brock at the Brompton Hospital for Chest Diseases. In 1951, Dr. Cooley returned to Houston and accepted a position as an instructor of surgery at Baylor University College of Medicine (now Baylor College of Medicine). There, he began his storied professional relationship with Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, chairman of the Department of Surgery, and soon became one of the leading surgeons in the burgeoning Texas Medical Center, as well as the international medical community.

Dr. Cooley quickly earned a reputation for operating swiftly and calmly. He also operated frequently; by the time of his passing, Dr. Cooley and his team had performed more than 120,000 open heart operations. He authored or co-authored 12 books and over 1,400 scientific articles throughout his career. His worked garnered over 120 honors and awards, including the Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award in the United States; presented by President Ronald Reagan in 1984) and the National Medal of Technology (presented by President William Clinton in 1999).

He performed a staggering number of "firsts" in cardiovascular surgery throughout his career, including the first open heart operation in the southern United States (1956), the first uses of a heart-lung machine (cardiopulmonary bypass) to repair several types of heart defects (1956, 1958), the first open heart operation on a Jehovah's Witness (1962), first heart-lung transplantation (1968), and (with Dr. John Norman) the first implantation of a left ventricular assist device as a bridge to transplantation (1978).

Dr. Cooley’s most famous "firsts" were the first successful human heart transplant in the United States (1968) and the world’s first total artificial heart implantation (1969). The latter procedure sparked what would become the so-called "feud" between Dr. Cooley and Dr. DeBakey. The two legends of cardiovascular surgery reconciled in 2007.

In 1962, Dr. Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute (THI). He was tremendously proud of THI and considered the institution to be his most important professional accomplishment. The ongoing work of THI, the hundreds of trainees Dr. Cooley mentored, and the myriad patients affected by his many contributions to cardiovascular medicine compose his awe-inspiring legacy as a surgeon and medical pioneer.

A proud Houstonian, Dr. Cooley spent the majority of his 96 years in the city of his birth. He was devoted to his family, which included his wife of nearly 70 years, Louise; the couple’s 5 daughters, Mary, Susan, Louise, Florence, and Helen; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Dr. Cooley always remained true to his core purposes as a physician: being a role model for rising leaders in surgery, continuing to see patients, and cultivating an interest in clinical medicine. He will certainly have a prominent place within the pages of medical history, but those of us fortunate to have known Dr. Cooley will remember him thus: dressed and ready for surgery, looking for the next challenge, optimistic about the future, and always ready to serve others.