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In Memory of
Denton Arthur Cooley
August 22, 1920 - November 15, 2016

Monday, November 28, 2016
Trinity Episcopal Church in Midtown

Glenwood Cemetery

Denton A. Cooley, MD

First Heart Transplant


Denton A. Cooley, a heart surgeon who performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States and helped make many other advances in cardiac surgery, including valve replacement, bypass operations, removing aortic aneurysms and the development of heart~lung machines, died Nov. 15 at his home in Houston. He was 96.

His death was announced by Texas Heart Institute, which he founded in 1962, and where he continued to work until earlier this week. The cause was not disclosed.

As early as the 1940s, when he was a medical student at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Cooley built a reputation as one of the most innovative and productive surgeons of his time. He assisted on the first blue baby operation in 1944, correcting once~fatal congenital heart defects in infants, and over the course of his career performed or supervised more than 100,000 surgeries.

In the 1950s, he collaborated with another Houston heart surgeon, Michael DeBakey, developing techniques in heart~bypass surgery and working on a heart~lung bypass machine, which could keep patients alive during open~heart surgery. Working under the older DeBakey at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Dr. Cooley helped develop surgical methods to repair aortic aneurysms.

But the two strong~willed surgeons had an acrimonious split in 1969, after Dr. Cooley performed the worlds first transplant using an artificial heart. DeBakey said the device had been developed by his own team and was, in essence, stolen by Dr. Cooley to promote his glory and in violation of medical ethics. Denton A. Cooley holds up a Jarvick 7 heart pump model at a news conference in 1989, while discussing the 20~year anniversary of the first implant of an artificial heart in a man. (Pam MacDonald/AP) The resulting quarrel became so public and rancorous that it was featured on the cover of Life magazine under the headline A Bitter Feud. What no one could dispute, however, was Dr. Cooleys sure~handed proficiency in the operating room. The 6~foot~3 onetime college basketball star improved his dexterity and precision by tying surgical knots in a small matchbox. His skill led to an early specialty in cardiovascular surgery on children.

In many peoples opinions, including mine, he is the finest heart surgeon to ever live, James Willerson, Dr. Cooleys successor as president of the Texas Heart Institute, told the Houston Chronicle. He was the most rapid. Had the finest hands.

As the rivalry between DeBakey and Dr. Cooley continued to fester, DeBakey remained affiliated with Baylor and Houston Methodist Hospital, while Dr. Cooley ran the Texas Heart Institute at St. Lukes Episcopal Hospital. The two facilities were within a few hundred feet of each other and provided an unexpected benefit to heart patients.

The two [doctors] transformed what had been a medical backwater into the cardiovascular surgery center of the world, Thomas Thompson wrote in the 1971 book Hearts: Of Surgeons and Transplants, Miracles and Disasters Along the Cardiac Frontier.

During the 20th century, heart disease emerged as the leading cause of death throughout the developing world. Advances in treatment and surgical methods were at the forefront of medicine across the globe during the 1960s, culminating in the worlds first successful heart transplant, by South African doctor Christiaan Barnard, in December 1967.

When Dr. Cooley sent him a congratulatory telegram, he couldnt resist adding a boastful twist: Congratulations on your first transplant, Chris. I will be reporting my first hundred soon.

After studying Barnards surgical technique, Dr. Cooley completed the first successful U.S. heart transplant on May 3, 1968, giving a 47~year~old man a heart from a 15~year~old girl who had committed suicide. The patient survived for 204 days. Over the next year, Dr. Cooley performed 22 heart transplants.

Even as Dr. Cooley and other surgeons opened new medical possibilities, religious leaders and medical ethicists pondered the morality of the transplant procedure. The debate revolved around whether death occurred when the brain stopped functioning or when the heart stopped beating.

I look upon the heart only as a pump, a servant of the brain, Dr. Cooley told Life magazine in 1968. Once the brain is gone, the heart becomes unemployed. Then we must find it other employment.

The DeBakey imbroglio was in part rooted in this ethical dilemma. In 1969, Dr. Cooley sought to use an artificial heart as a temporary measure while the patient awaited a human heart from a donor. It was never clear how Dr. Cooley obtained the artificial heart developed by DeBakey, but a member of Dr. Cooleys medical team had once worked for DeBakey.

At any rate, the episode put federal grants at risk and resulted in Dr. Cooleys censure by the American College of Physicians. DeBakey said his onetime colleague disappointed me with his ethics and that his actions were a little childish.

They didnt speak for almost 40 years before they reconciled in 2007, one year before DeBakeys death at 99.

Denton Arthur Cooley was born Aug. 22, 1920, in Houston, where his father was a dentist and real estate investor.

Dr. Cooley studied zoology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he starred on the basketball team and graduated in 1941. He received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University three years later.

He assisted his mentor, Alfred Blalock, in the first blue baby operation in 1944, correcting a heart defect that prevented an infant from obtaining a sufficient amount of oxygen. The experience led Dr. Cooley to his specialty as a heart surgeon. He later performed a successful blue baby procedure on the child of a Houston war hero, earning plaudits in his home town. Dr. Cooley served as an Army surgeon in Austria from 1946 to 1948 before continuing his medical training at Johns Hopkins and in London. He returned to Houston in 1951. Working with DeBakey, he helped develop a heart~lung machine — using parts from a coffee pot — to maintain the circulatory functions of the heart during surgery. Dr. Cooley became known for his work on infants and for his skill at replacing damaged heart valves and correcting aneurysms in arterial walls.

As the use of artificial hearts declined in the 1970s, Dr. Cooley focused more on coronary bypass procedures. He supervised as many as 30 operations a day and, for a time, his Texas Heart Institute reportedly performed one~tenth of all open~heart surgeries in the United States. He performed his final operation when he was 87.

Among those who observed Dr. Cooley in the operating theater was Barnard, who in his book One Life (1970) described one operation as the most beautiful surgery I had ever seen. . . . Every movement had a purpose and achieved its aim. Where most surgeons would take three hours, he could do the same operation in one hour.

Dr. Cooleys wife of 67 years, the former Louise Thomas, died in October. A daughter, Florence Cooley, committed suicide in 1985. Survivors include four daughters, Mary Craddock, Susan Cooley, Louise Cooley Davis and Helen Fraser; 16 grandchildren; and 17 great~grandchildren.

Dr. Cooley, who made as much as $10 million a year in his medical practice, filed for bankruptcy protection in 1988 after failed real estate investments. He paid back $85 million to his creditors.

He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nations highest civilian honor, in 1984. He was the author of eight medical textbooks and more than 1,000 articles and published a memoir, 100,000 Hearts, in 2012. Among his avocations, he played the upright bass in the Heartbeats, a swing band made up of physicians.

Like many surgeons, Dr. Cooley was brimming with self~confidence and was not known for false modesty. When he was a defendant in a medical liability trial, a lawyer asked Dr. Cooley if he thought of himself as the worlds best heart surgeon.

Yes, he said.

Dont you think thats being rather immodest? the lawyer asked.

Perhaps, Dr. Cooley replied . But remember, Im under oath.

Denton Arthur Cooley, M.D., native Houstonian, pioneering heart surgeon and founder of the Texas Heart Institute, died at home on Friday, the 18th of November 2016 at age 96. He was born in Houston, Texas, on the 22nd of August 1920, to Mary Fraley Cooley and Ralph Clarkson Cooley, a prominent Houston dentist. His wife of 67 years, Louise Goldsborough Thomas Cooley died one month ago. Denton Cooley was a proud Houstonian who lived a full and well-rounded life. He maintained lifelong friendships and remained loyal to family, institutions and people, while having a single-minded focus on his work. Cooley's ties to Houston precede his birth. In 1890, his grandfather, Daniel Denton Cooley, helped develop the Houston Heights, a major suburb of the city. Denton Cooley attended Houston Public Schools – Montrose Elementary, Sidney Lanier Junior High and graduated from San Jacinto High School. He was a proud contributor to the San Jacinto High school newspaper, the "Campus Cub," until the end of his life. He is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin on a basketball scholarship. There, he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Kappa Sigma Fraternity and the Texas Cowboys. Cooley played on the UT basketball team that won the Southwest Conference Championship at Madison Square Garden in 1939. He remained an avid sportsman his entire life. He attended The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and later transferred to The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore where he graduated in 1944 with highest honors. He did his surgical residency under renowned surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock. His training was interrupted between 1946 and 1948 to serve WWII military duty in the 124th Station Hospital in Linz, Austria. He returned to Baltimore, where he met the beautiful and spirited head nurse of the Halsted surgical floor, Louise Thomas, whom he married in 1949. As an intern under Blalock, Cooley assisted in the first "blue-baby" operation, one of the most important milestones in heart surgery. Upon completing his residency, Denton and Louise moved to London where he joined Lord Russell Brock at the Brompton Hospital as senior surgical registrar. Upon completing his training, Cooley returned to his hometown with his young wife and first daughter, Mary, where he joined the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine. In 1962, he founded the Texas Heart Institute (THI) at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. THI is a world leader in research, education and patient care and the fight against heart disease. He served as the THI surgeon-in-chief for over 40 years. He continued operating until he was 87 years old, yet continued to make rounds and visit patients until age 96. Denton Cooley's career spanned the history of modern heart surgery. His name has become synonymous with medical and technical excellence. Cooley performed the first successful human heart transplant in the U.S. in 1968 and the first human implantation of a total artificial heart in the world a year later. He contributed to techniques for repair and replacement of diseased heart valves and is widely known for his pioneering surgical treatment of cardiac anomalies in infants and children. Along with his team, Cooley performed over 120,000 open heart operations. His astounding manual dexterity and lightning speed enabled him to perform what was once described as a "Woolworth volume of operations with Tiffany quality." He was a master at simplifying the most complex surgical procedures with a smoothness that made them look easy. In the operating room, he was exceptionally calm, even under the most difficult circumstances. His composed and kind demeanor set the tone for THI. He believed in teamwork and did not tolerate prima donnas. Surgeons came from far and wide to observe his surgical prowess. Dr. Christiaan Barnard said, "It was the most beautiful surgery I had ever seen. No one could equal it. Dr. Cooley's skill was matched by his grace and kindness." It was important to Denton Cooley that he pass his gifts on to emerging surgeons and, thus, established a program that trained hundreds of next-generation leaders in heart surgery. Through them and their trainees, his surgical legacy endures. More than 800 surgeons are members of the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. He truly cared about his residents, colleagues and their families who carry memories of Dr Cooley, not only at the operating table, but also pitching softball and driving the hayride at the annual Cool Acres hospital picnic. During his career, Cooley authored more than 1,400 scientific papers and 12 books, including 100,000 Hearts: A Surgeon's Memoir. His honors and awards include the National Medal of Technology presented by President Bill Clinton; the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, presented by President Ronald Reagan; the Theodore Roosevelt award given by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to a varsity athlete who has achieved national recognition in his profession. Every surgical society bestowed on him its highest honors. He was a Distinguished Alumnus of The University of Texas, The University of Texas Medical Branch and The Johns Hopkins University. He received honorary degrees from many American and foreign universities. Dr. Cooley's innovations are not limited to the operating room or the laboratory. He founded a managed health care plan in the early 1980's – the first to "bundle" cardiovascular services into one fixed fee, saving millions of health care dollars. Throughout his life, Cooley supported civic and humanitarian causes. Facilities that bear his name include the Student Center at Johns Hopkins; the Animal Hospital at the Houston Zoo; the University of Texas Basketball Pavilion and Student Center; University of Texas Houston Dental School University Life Center and most recently, the Denton A. Cooley, M. D. Hall at the Texas Medical Center Library which houses his papers and video library. "He was a transformational leader and dear friend to many. The world has lost a medical genius and a great humanitarian," said THI President Dr. James T. Willerson. "Dr. Cooley dedicated his life to healing hearts. The number of lives he saved and improved over the years cannot be counted." Family was of the utmost importance to Denton Cooley. He always said his family gave him the most joy and his office walls were covered with family photos. He proudly pointed out the newest "great-grand" to anyone who happened in. He loved spending time with his family at Cool Acres Ranch on the Brazos River, the water ski shack on the San Jacinto River or CooleyBunkport, the Galveston family beach house, each of which were close enough to the Medical Center in case of emergency. Denton Cooley had a twinkle in his eye, a keen sense of humor and lived life to the fullest. His legacy lives on through his family, through THI and through the work of his trainees and their trainees. He was a surgeon like no other. He will be missed by all who knew him and by all whose lives he touched. Denton Cooley was preceded in death by his wife of 67 years, Louise; daughter, Florence Talbot Cooley; his parents; and his brother, Ralph Clarkson Cooley, Jr.; and sister-in-law, Miriam McDorman Cooley. He is survived by daughters, Mary Craddock, Susan Cooley, Louise Davis, M.D. and Helen Fraser; and their husbands, John W. Craddock, Jr., M.D., Richard T. Davis, and Charles D. Fraser, Jr., M.D. Also surviving are sixteen grandchildren and spouses - Sarah Walker and David Spitz; Blair Walker, M.D. and Marc Schmid; Denton Walker and Laena; William Walker and Emily; Jack Craddock; Caroline Craddock; Louise Paez and Gabriel ; John Plumb and Katherine; Robert Plumb and Sheridan; Mary Senkel and Nick; Susie Lowe and Jimmy; Peter Kaldis, M.D. and Leslie; Laura Nachtigall and David, Charlie Fraser, M.D. and Kathleen; Gracie Fraser; Will Fraser - and seventeen great-grandchildren – the most recent, a girl, Grace Cooley Fraser - born Nov. 21, 2016 – and at least a couple more great-grands on the way. He is also survived by his cousin, Gus Greening; his niece, Marianna Cooley Hendricks; and nephews, Talbot and Daniel Denton Cooley. The family is particularly grateful to those who dedicated themselves to making Dr. Cooley's life easier, including Dena Houchin, R.N., Joan Miller, James Berardo, Kathy Gerrie, Marc Mattsson, Barbara and Jack Sebring. The family is especially thankful to Robert "RB" Williams, Neftali Bucio and Sarah B. Moore for their decades of willing service. Words are inadequate to describe the tireless and unwavering care provided by Dr. Cooley's personal physician, Carl Dahlberg, M.D. The family is also grateful to Betsy Strauch, M.D. and Darelle Robbins, R.N. of the Houston Hospice. Deepest gratitude goes to caregivers including, Glenda Sparrow, Tim Guzman, Imogene Randall, Cynthia Bruns, Eddie Guice, Johnny Peralta, Rick Ramirez, Miguel Rodriguez, Manny Bamtefa, Mario Okoro and Arthur Joyner. A special thanks to staff members at Texas Children's Hospital and the Texas Heart Institute for their attention to detail and assistance with funeral arrangements. A memorial service will be held on Monday, November 28th at 11am at Trinity Episcopal Church in Midtown. A private burial will take place beforehand at Glenwood Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to the Texas Heart Institute, P.O. Box 20345 Mail Code 3-117 Houston, TX 77225-9969 or the Trinity Church Endowment, Inc. 1015 Holman Houston, TX 77004. Live viewing of the service will be available. For details, please refer to

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