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Footprints Through Time: Denton A. Cooley (1920- )

Denton A. CooleyDenton A. Cooley grew up in Houston, Texas and studied at the University of Texas at Austin before pursuing his M.D. at Johns Hopkins University. Cooley continued at Hopkins as intern and resident, and assisted Dr. Alfred Blalock in the first blue-baby operation in November 1944, which corrected a deadly heart defect. That experience inspired Cooley; he chose to specialize in heart surgery.

In 1954, Colley returned to Houston and joined the faculty of Baylor University's medical school, already famous for the work of heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. Cooley worked with DeBakey on techniques for removing aortic aneurysms. Cooley's reputation grew through his work on repairing damaged heart valves with artificial replacements, and his establishment of the Texas Heart Institute in 1962. His relationship with DeBakey became more of a rivalry.

Soon after Dr. Christaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant in South Africa in December 1967, Cooley learned from that technique and repeated the operation in May 1968, implanting the heart of a 15-year-old girl into the body of a 47-year-old patient. The patient recovered but died seven months later. Cooley refined the operation in the following months. At one point he was conducting as many as 22 heart transplants a year.

In 1969 Cooley implanted the first complete artificial heart, which sustained the patient until a permanent donor heart was available. The operation was controversial and DeBakey, who accused Cooley of improper conduct, moved to have Cooley censured. Cooley resigned from Baylor and devoted all his time to his Texas Heart Institute.

He began doing coronary bypasses in the 1970s, and throughout his career promoted education for heart disease prevention. Cooley and his associates have together performed over 98,000 open heart operations. He has received the National Medal of Freedom and the Rene Leriche Prize, the highest honor of the International Surgical Society.

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