Denton A. Cooley , M.D.
Pioneering cardiovascular surgeon and founder of the Texas Heart Institute

Denton CooleyOn August 20, 1920, a self-described shy and insecure boy was born to Ralph and Mary Cooley of Houston, less than two miles from the site of what is today the Texas Medical Center. The boy, Denton Cooley, gained confidence—and, ultimately, worldwide acclaim—by vigorously applying himself to his studies. In the process, he has advanced the practice of cardiovascular surgery from its infancy to its current state of the art.

A gifted student, Denton Cooley was also an outstanding athlete in high school. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a dentist. But he was always fascinated by physicians, especially his mother’s obstetrician, Dr. E.W. Bertner, who was a role model for him. At 16, Denton Cooley entered the zoology program at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a varsity basketball star who lettered in the sport for three years. His academic success there gave him the confidence to pursue a career in medicine.

Denton Cooley graduated from the University of Texas in 1941 with highest honors. He completed his first two years of medical training at UTMB, studying under such luminaries as Dr. Samuel Snodgrass and Dr. Raymond Blount. He recalls attending operations performed by Dr. Albert O. Singleton and being “fascinated by the whole surgical scene and the teamwork that went on in surgery.”

In the midst of World War II, he transferred to the Johns Hopkins University Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland, where he earned his medical degree and began his internship in 1944. In November of that year, just three months into his internship, he assisted in the first operation to correct an infant’s congenital heart defect using a systemic pulmonary shunt. The “blue baby” procedure was pioneered by his Johns Hopkins mentor, Dr. Alfred Blalock, and surgical technician Vivien Thomas. Dr. Cooley would often refer to that operation as “the dawn of modern heart surgery.”

From 1946 to 1948, Dr. Cooley was on active duty with the Army Medical Corps. Upon his discharge, he returned to Baltimore to complete his residency and remained as an instructor in surgery. In 1949 he married Louise Goldsborough Thomas, a registered nurse (together they have raised five daughters). In 1950 he spent a year in London, working with eminent heart surgeon Lord Russell Brock and participating in the first intracardiac operations in England.

In 1951, Dr. Cooley realized the tremendous promise of the new Texas Medical Center. He decided to return to his hometown and became a full-time faculty member of Baylor College of Medicine, working at Baylor-affiliated Methodist Hospital and at Texas Children’s Hospital. In 1960 he moved his practice to St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, and in 1962 he founded the Texas Heart Institute (THI) with private funds in order to foster research and education in cardiovascular surgery. In 1969 he resigned his position at Baylor to devote his full attention to THI, where he serves as president and surgeon-in-chief. The institute has been ranked among the top 10 heart centers in the United States for 16 years in a row.

The 1960s saw significant milestones in Dr. Cooley’s career. He and his colleagues designed new artificial heart valves, and from 1962 to 1967, the mortality rate for valve transplant patients fell from 70 percent to 8 percent. On May 3, 1968, he performed the first successful heart transplant in the nation; the patient was a 47-year-old man who survived 204 days. Over the next year, he would perform 22 heart transplants. In 1969, he performed the first implantation of an artificial heart in a human when no heart replacement was immediately available. The Liotta-Cooley artificial heart is now owned by and on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

Dr. Cooley has pioneered surgical techniques to correct congenital heart anomalies in infants and children, to bypass clogged coronary arteries and to repair aortic aneurysms. He has helped develop and perfect methods for repairing and replacing diseased heart valves. He also helped develop the heart/lung machine, which makes modern cardiac surgical procedures possible. He and his associates have performed more than 100,000 open-heart surgeries through THI (more than at any other facility in the world). He has invented many heart surgery tools, as well as fabric heart grafts that have been used in more than a million patients. 

Dr. Cooley’s professional success has allowed him to support causes that are meaningful to him and his wife, Louise. He has said, “I think the role of philanthropist is one of the real satisfactions in life.” In 1958, he formed The Denton A. Cooley Foundation, which has supported endowments such as the Louise Cooley Professorship at William and Mary College in honor of his wife, and two professorships at UT Austin. In addition, in 2002 the foundation established the Denton A. Cooley, M.D. Distinguished Professorship in Surgery at UTMB, currently held by Dr. Vincent R. Conti, chief of UTMB’s Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery. A similar professorship was endowed at the UT Medical School in Houston.

Dr. Cooley has received numerous awards in recognition of his dedication to advancing health care practices and medical science. In 1967 he was awarded the Renee Leriche Prize, the highest honor of the International Surgical Society. In its citation, the Society called him “the most valuable surgeon of the heart and blood vessel anywhere in the world.” When inducted into the Academy of Achievement in 1968, Dr. Cooley recalled how he turned the tables on childhood insecurity: “I’ve always felt that I did well as a student because I lacked confidence.”

In 1998 President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor given in the United States for technological innovation. In 1984, former President Ronald Reagan presented Cooley with the National Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a citizen of the United States.

Both the University of Texas and Johns Hopkins Medical School have named him a distinguished alumnus, and he received a 1994 Ashbel Smith Distinguished Alumnus Award from UTMB. He also has been named an Honorary Fellow in five Royal Colleges of Surgeons—most recently the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh—and has been decorated by 12 other nations. In his “spare” time he has authored or co-authored more than 1,300 articles and 12 books. He also serves as a consultant in cardiovascular surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital and as a clinical professor of surgery at the UT Medical School at Houston. His name distinguishes the Denton A. Cooley Building, a state-of-the-art facility for education, patient care and research at the Texas Heart Institute. Dr. Cooley has even been known to play the upright string bass as a member of The Heartbeats, a band of fellow physicians and dentists.

But for all of these accolades and accomplishments, when asked in the 2004 Legends in Medicine interview how he would he like to be remembered, Dr. Cooley answered, “One must live long, work hard and inspire his students.”

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