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If you like Denton Cooley's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Keith Black,
Benjamin Carson,
Paul Farmer,
Judah Folkman,
Willem Kolff and
Thomas Starzl

Denton Cooley's recommended reading: Miss Susie Slagle's

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Denton Cooley in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

Related Links:
Texas Heart Institute

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Denton Cooley
Denton Cooley
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Denton Cooley Biography

Pioneer of Heart Transplants

Denton Cooley Date of birth: August 22, 1920
Date of death: November 15, 2016

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  Denton Cooley

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Denton Cooley was born and raised in Houston, Texas. His father, a dentist, had a thriving practice and was able to invest profitably in real estate. When young Denton first entered school he was shy and insecure, but gained confidence by applying himself to his studies, and by high school had distinguished himself academically and athletically, playing tennis and basketball. At the University of Texas, he majored in zoology, and was a star of the varsity basketball squad. At first he intended to join his father's dental practice, but after taking a few pre-med courses, he became fascinated by surgery.

In 1941, he entered the Texas College of Medicine at Galveston, but soon transferred to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. His medical education was provided in part by the Army Specialty Training Program. He obtained his M.D. degree in 1944 and remained at Hopkins as an intern, assisting Dr. Alfred Blalock in the first "blue baby" operation, to correct an infant's congenital heart defect.

Cooley believes the modern era in cardiovascular surgery began with Dr. Blalock's work, and it inspired him to specialize in heart surgery. Even as an intern, Cooley impressed his colleagues with his extraordinary speed and dexterity in the operating room.

In 1946, Dr. Cooley was called on to fulfill his obligation to the army and went on active duty with the Army Medical Corps. He served as chief of surgical services at the station hospital in Linz, Austria and was discharged in 1948 with the rank of captain. He returned to Hopkins to complete his residency and remained as an instructor in surgery. In 1950 he traveled to London to work and study with Lord Russell Brock, the eminent British surgeon.

Denton Cooley Biography Photo
Dr. Cooley finally came home to Houston in 1951, to become associate professor of surgery at Baylor University College of Medicine and to work at Methodist Hospital, its affiliated institution. At Baylor and Methodist, Cooley began his collaboration with Dr. Michael DeBakey, the great pioneer of vascular surgery. This relationship would lead to great triumphs and to great bitterness for both men.

Throughout the '50s, their collaboration produced great innovations in surgery. While working with DeBakey, Cooley developed a new method of removing aortic aneurysms, the bulging weak spots that may develop in the wall of the artery. Some 20 years earlier, Dr. DeBakey had begun work on a heart-lung bypass machine, to immobilize the heart during surgery, but it was Cooley's design that was finally used successfully at Methodist Hospital in 1955.

The two great surgeons were temperamentally incompatible, and in 1960, Dr. Cooley moved his practice from Methodist Hospital to St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, only 300 feet away. He also worked at Texas Children's Hospital, and continued to teach at Baylor, where he was now a full professor. Through his work at Baylor he still came into contact with Dr. DeBakey, and the friction between the two doctors continued. Meanwhile, Dr. Cooley founded the privately funded Texas Heart Institute,

Cooley's fame spread throughout the 1960s as he applied his extraordinary dexterity to delicate surgery on the hearts of infants with congenital heart disease. He was the first surgeon to successfully remove pulmonary embolisms, squeezing the lungs flat to remove the inaccessible blood clots.

Dr. Cooley and his colleagues also pursued the development of artificial heart valves. From 1962 to 1967, mortality rate for valve transplant patients fell form 70 percent to eight percent. In 1967, the International Surgical Society awarded Dr. Cooley its highest honor, the Renée Lebiche Prize. In its citation, the Society called him "the most valuable surgeon of the heart and blood vessel anywhere in the world."

Denton Cooley Biography Photo
At the end of that year, the South African surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, stunned the world by successfully transplanting a human heart. Within days, American surgeons tried and failed to duplicate the operation. Cooley and his team of surgeons at St. Luke's studied Barnard's methods with great care, streamlining and perfecting the procedure before trying it on a human patient.

On May 3, 1968, Cooley performed his first human heart transplant. The donor was a 15 year-old girl who had committed suicide. Although her brain had ceased to function, her heart was still beating. Cooley successfully transplanted the heart into a 47 year-old man, who survived for 204 days with the transplanted heart. Over the next year, Cooley performed 22 heart transplants, completing three within a single five-day period.

Cooley's extraordinary record in these years attracted both praise and criticism. Many Americans did not accept the end of brain activity as the moment of death, and condemned the practice of removing a beating heart for transplant. In 1969, with no donor heart available for his dying patient, Dr. Cooley took a great risk by implanting an experimental artificial heart. After 65 hours, a human heart became available, and Cooley replaced the artificial heart, but the patient died a day later. Dr. Barnard, the pioneer of heart transplantation, praised Cooley's decision, but Cooley's former colleague, Dr. DeBakey was harshly critical.

Denton Cooley Biography Photo
Dr. DeBakey believed that Cooley had improperly appropriated DeBakey's research, and had performed the operation without receiving federal approval for the procedure. Cooley emphatically denied the first charge, and asserted that the patient's permission was adequate justification to attempt the operation. The governors of the American College of Surgeons voted to censure Dr. Cooley and, after a further dispute with the trustees of Baylor, he ended his 19-year association with the University. A multi-million dollar malpractice suit brought by the patient's widow was dismissed by the federal courts.

While Drs. Willem Kolff and William DeVries in Utah continued the development of the artificial heart, Cooley turned his attention to the coronary bypass operation. By 1972, he had performed over 1200 bypasses; 10,000 open-heart operations, more than any other surgeon in the world.

1972 saw the establishment of the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Foundation -- an organization of surgeons trained by Dr. Cooley -- and the dedication of the 29-story Texas Heart Institute building in Houston, where Dr. Cooley performed as many as 25 heart operations in a single day.

Dr. Cooley married Louise Goldborough Thomas of Baltimore, and the couple raised five daughters. During his career, Dr. Cooley spent his limited spare time with his family, playing golf and playing upright bass with an all-physician band, The Heartbeats.

This page last revised on Nov 19, 2016 15:19 EDT
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