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Pioneering Heart Surgeon Denton A. Cooley Dies at 96 - 11/18/2016

Pioneering Heart Surgeon Denton A. Cooley Dies at 96

Graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1944
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Denton A. Cooley

Pioneering heart surgeon Denton A. Cooley, a 1944 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who participated in the birth of cardiac surgery at Hopkins as a young intern and went on to become one of the greatest heart surgeons of the 20th century, died today in Houston, Texas. He was 96.

A longstanding benefactor of the school of medicine and The Johns Hopkins Hospital, which owe their Denton A. Cooley Recreation Center to his generosity, Cooley always credited his mentors at Johns Hopkins — among them, Alfred Blalock, the legendary surgery chief; Blalock’s incomparable surgical technician, Vivien Thomas; and pediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig — with preparing him for the extraordinary half-century career he had as the world’s foremost heart surgeon.

It has been estimated that over four decades, Cooley and his associates performed an estimated 100,000 open-heart surgeries — more than any other surgeon in the world — at the Texas Heart Institute, which he founded in 1962.

He performed the first repair of an aortic aneurysm and the first removal of a pulmonary embolism, and he co-developed the first heart-lung machine in 1955, with Dr. Michael DeBakey of Houston’s Methodist Hospital.

Cooley also was a pioneer in heart transplantation. In 1968, he performed the first human-heart transplant, after which the patient lived more than a few weeks; and in 1969, he undertook the first implantation of a mechanical heart. In 1978, he conducted the first clinical implant of a left ventricular assist device to support a patient’s heart function.

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 continued operating until he was 87 — and still made rounds in the intensive care unit of his institute long after that.

Cooley’s career as a cardiac surgeon began literally when the field itself was born. As a 24-year-old intern, he stood across the operating table from Blalock during the first, famous “blue baby operation” on Nov. 29, 1944 — repairing a tiny infant’s congenital heart defect, known as tetralogy of Fallot. This causes what’s referred to as “blue baby syndrome,” since the skin of the children who suffer from it turns blue because the blood their defective hearts pump is low on oxygen.

Cooley returned to Johns Hopkins often to speak — perhaps most memorably in 1981 for the opening of his namesake recreational center. He had contributed $750,000 toward its $2.6 million cost. A championship basketball player when he was at the University of Texas, Cooley was accorded the privilege of inaugurating the center’s full-size basketball court — which he had specifically ordered — and as Sports Illustrated reported, “the 6’4” inch surgeon ceremoniously scored the first basket in the new gym — a vintage 20-foot, one-hand push shot.”

Cooley’s dedication to Johns Hopkins continued until the end of his life. He last spoke at Hopkins at the school of medicine’s 2009 commencement.

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