Denton Arthur Cooley

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Denton Arthur Cooley


American Cardiovascular Surgeon

Denton A. Cooley is a pioneer in the evolution of modern cardiovascular (heart-circulatory system) surgery. In 1969 Cooley was the first surgeon to implant an artificial heart in a human awaiting heart transplantation. He also performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States. Cooley is the founder of the world-renowned Texas Heart Institute, where more open-heart surgeries and heart diagnostic procedures have been performed than in any other facility in the world. Cooley's high-profile surgeries have sparked both praise and criticism in the medical community as well as broadened the boundaries of surgical practice.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Cooley was the son of a successful dentist and real estate investor. He excelled academically in school and overcame his shyness by playing basketball. Cooley majored in zoology at the University of Texas, where he also played on the varsity basketball team. While taking pre-med courses, Cooley became fascinated by surgery. Cooley earned his M.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1944. During his residency there, Cooley assisted Alfred Blalock in the first "blue baby" operation, a milestone surgical procedure that corrected a congenital (inborn) heart defect in an infant. Blalock's influence and pioneering work on the frontiers of open-heart surgery inspired Cooley to specialize in the field. Cooley interrupted his residency in 1946 to fulfill an obligation with the U.S. Army, serving for two years in the Army Medical Corps. He was made Chief of Surgical Services at the Army Hospital in Linz, Austria. Upon his discharge, Cooley returned to Hopkins, where he finished his residency and became an instructor of surgery. Cooley earned a reputation for simplifying complex surgical techniques while exercising speed and dexterity in the operating room.

In 1950 Cooley spent a year in London at the Brompton Hospital for Chest Diseases, where he studied and worked with Lord Russel Brock, an eminent British surgeon, and participated in England's first intracardiac operation. Cooley returned home to Texas the following year to become an associate professor of surgery at Baylor University College of Medicine. At Baylor and its sister institution, Houston Methodist Hospital, Cooley began a collaboration with another cardiovascular surgeon, Michael E. Debakey, one which resulted in major innovations in heart surgery throughout the 1950s. Together the two developed and perfected a heart-lung bypass machine that used at Methodist to allow for the immobilization of the heart during surgical repairs. They also collaborated on surgical techniques to remove aneurysms (weakened areas of the arterial wall) from the aorta and to repair damaged heart valves.

In 1962 Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston. Here, Cooley and his colleagues encouraged and refined the development of artificial heart valves, dramatically reducing the mortality rate for valve transplant patients. Cooley's team was the first to remove successfully a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs) and pioneered delicate procedures to correct congenital heart defects in infants and children. In 1967 the International Surgical Society awarded Cooley its highest accolade, the Renée Lebiche Prize.

Cooley performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States on May 3, 1968. His patient, a 47-year-old man, received the heart of a 15-year-old girl who had committed suicide. (The donor's brain function had ceased but her heart was still beating.) Although the recipient lived for 204 days and Cooley received praise from the medical community, an ethical debate ensued as Americans wrestled with the issue of determining when the moment of death occurs. In 1969 Cooley implanted the first artificial heart in a human. This mechanical heart served as a temporary bridge to a human donor heart, which became available approximately three days later. Although the patient died the day after the human heart was transplanted, this pioneering effort sparked intensive worldwide research into artificial hearts. The procedures and laws governing organ donation, organ harvesting, and allocation of organs for transplant continue as a subject for debate and revision today.

During the 1970s, Cooley turned his attention to the study of coronary artery disease, which was by then the leading cause of death in the United States. Cooley severed his relationship with Baylor to assume his present post as Surgeon-in-Chief at the Texas Heart Institute, where Cooley pioneered many techniques for the coronary bypass operation. Cooley and his associates at the Heart Institute have performed approximately 100,000 open-heart operations—more than any other institution in the world. In 1998 President Bill Clinton presented Cooley with the Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor for technical innovation.