World-Renowned Heart Surgeon Denton A. Cooley Dies at 96

Denton A. Cooley in 1957

World-renowned heart surgeon and medical pioneer Denton A. Cooley, BA ’41, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, died Friday at his home. He was 96.

In 1962, Cooley created the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, where he served as surgeon-in-chief for more than 40 years. Six years later, he performed the first successful human heart transplant in the U.S., and in 1969, Cooley completed the world’s first human implantation of a total artificial heart. 

“We’ve lost a dear friend and transformational leader, but the world has lost a medical genius and a great humanitarian,” THI President James T. Willerson, BA ’61, Life Member, said in a news release. “Dr. Cooley dedicated his life to healing hearts, and the number of lives he saved and improved over the years cannot be counted.”

The THI is recognized internationally for its research programs in cardiology, cardiovascular surgery, stem cell and gene therapy, and regenerative medicine. With the establishment of Cooley’s school of surgery at THI, he hoped that training young surgeons would ensure that his surgical legacy would carry on. 

By the Cooley’s 87th birthday, his final day as a surgeon, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine graduate and his team had performed more than 120,000 open heart surgeries. He authored and coauthored more than 1,400 scientific papers, 12 books, and had received more than 120 honors and awards, including two presidential awards given to him by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Cooley, whose career spanned the history of modern cardiovascular surgery, contributed to many of today’s cardiovascular tools and procedures. He was especially known for his advancements in treatment for cardiac anomalies in infants and children. During his time at Johns Hopkins, Cooley was part of the team that performed the groundbreaking Blue Baby Operation, which helped a young girl whose heart defects starved her blood of oxygen to the extent that her skin turned blue.

“My good fortune professionally came from the fact that I began my career when heart surgery was in its infancy, when surgeons were free to discover and innovate,” Cooley would often say, according to his family. “I’ve been a participant in so many breakthroughs primarily because I was there when they occurred. With the advent of the heart-lung machine, for example, we surgeons had the key to a door that had previously been locked. Once we had the key, then we could venture out into unexplored territory.”

The son of a prominent dentist, Cooley was born in Houston in 1920. He was married to his wife Louise Thomas Cooley for 67 years before her death, and is survived by four of his five daughters and more than 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in 1937, where he majored in zoology and graduated with highest honors as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He loved to play tennis and was a member of the 1939 Southwest Conference Champion Longhorn basketball team. He was also a Texas Cowboy. 

“Denton Cooley created new standards of care and drove changes in medicine that improved and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients around the world,” said UT President Greg Fenves, in a news release. “The University of Texas prepares leaders who can benefit society and improve the world—none more so than Dr. Cooley, who continued to give back throughout his life. His legacy on campus and throughout the world will be felt for generations.”

Denton A. Cooley in his office at Baylor College of Medicine in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Family of Denton A. Cooley, Texas Heart Institute & Texas Children’s Hospital.

 

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