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Dr. Denton Cooley in 1994. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Dr. Denton Cooley in 1994. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

OBITUARY

Denton Cooley: Surgeon did first successful U.S. heart transplant Add to ...

Dr. Denton Cooley, the cardiovascular surgeon who performed some of the nation’s first heart transplants and implanted the world’s first artificial heart, died Friday. He was 96.

A leading practitioner of the coronary bypass operation, Cooley contributed to the development of techniques to repair and replace diseased heart valves and was renowned for operations to correct congenital heart problems in infants and children. He performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States in 1968 and implanted the world’s first artificial heart in 1969 as a temporary measure while a heart transplant was arranged.

Dr. Cooley died at his Houston home surrounded by family, said Jenn Jacome, a spokeswoman for Texas Children’s Hospital, where he had worked earlier in his career. Linden Emerson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, which Dr. Cooley founded, also confirmed Dr. Cooley’s death.

Dr. Cooley had continued to work despite declining health over the last year and was at his office at the Texas Heart Institute as recently as Monday, Ms. Jacome said.

“The heart is truly a remarkable organ,” Dr. Cooley said in 1989, “and developing a perfect substitute is going to be a challenge not only for this generation, but for generations of researchers to come.”

He also pioneered techniques for the repair of aneurysms of the aorta.

He had a long-time feud with fellow Texan Dr. Michael DeBakey that ended only a year before Dr. DeBakey died in 2008, at age 99. Both doctors pioneered key techniques to help heart patients. They both earned national and international reputations, too, making headlines and attracting rich and famous patients.

Dr. Cooley was born in 1920, the son of a wealthy Houston dentist. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1941 and earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1944.

“Denton’s pioneering contributions to medicine are, of course, legend,” former President George H. W. Bush, who lives in Houston, said in a statement.

The same year he earned his medical degree, Cooley assisted Dr. Alfred Blalock in the first “blue baby” operation to correct an infant’s congenital heart defect, which helped pave the way for modern heart surgery.

In 1951, Dr. Cooley joined Baylor College of Medicine at Houston’s Methodist Hospital, where he was appointed a surgical instructor under Dr. DeBakey.

Dr. Cooley moved to Texas Children’s Hospital in the mid-1950s where he began a series of heart operations on children. He founded the Texas Heart Institute as part of St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in 1962, when he and Dr. DeBakey made a formal split. Over the years, Dr. Cooley’s institute research team became widely recognized for the development and testing of heart assist devices for patients awaiting transplants.

In May 1968, Dr. Cooley sewed the heart of a 15-year-old into Everett Thomas, a 47-year-old accountant from Phoenix. Mr. Thomas later received a second transplant, and he lived about seven months – making him the first U.S. heart transplant recipient to be well enough to go home from the hospital.

In April 1969, Dr. Cooley implanted the world’s first artificial heart into 47-year-old Haskell Karp as a temporary measure while a transplant was arranged. Dr. Karp lived 65 hours until the transplant was performed, but died of pneumonia a day and a half later.

The operation widened the rift with Dr. DeBakey, who alleged that Dr. Cooley took the heart used in Mr. Karp from his laboratory.

Dr. Cooley and Dr. DeBakey publicly made amends in 2007, when Cooley presented Dr. DeBakey with a lifetime achievement award. When Dr. DeBakey died, Dr. Cooley said, “There is no question that he was one of the pioneers of cardiovascular surgery in the last half of the 20th century.”

Among his honours, Dr. Cooley received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Dr. Cooley is survived by his four daughters. His wife, Louise, died in October. A fifth daughter died in 1985.

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