Denton Cooley (1920 - 2016)

Dr. Denton A. Cooley, the surgeon who performed the world's first artificial heart implant, died Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. He was 96.

Cooley was a pioneer in open heart surgery, making improvements to nascent heart-lung machine technology in the 1950s and operating to repair infants' congenital heart defects.

In 1962, he founded the Texas Heart Institute, where he performed more than 60,000 open heart surgeries over the course of his career. Of those, two were particularly noteworthy: In 1968, he performed the United States' first successful human heart transplant. In 1969, he performed the world's first artificial heart implant.

The latter milestone led to a professional rivalry with former colleague and fellow Texas heart surgeon Michael E. DeBakey, who had been Cooley’s senior associate. Disagreement about the procedure landed the two world-class heart surgeons on the cover of Life magazine in 1970.

The rift deepened into a personal feud that lasted decades, until they reconciled in 2007, shortly before DeBakey's death at 99.


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Denton Arthur Cooley was born Aug. 22, 1920, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1941 and attended medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He did his surgical training at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. There, he assisted Dr. Alfred Blalock with the first “baby blue” operation. These procedures were performed to correct congenital heart defects that robbed the blood of oxygen.

President Ronald Reagan awarded Cooley the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.

Cooley's wife, Louise, and a daughter preceded him in death. His survivors include four daughters and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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