Denton Cooley, 96, pioneering heart surgeon

Dr. Cooley performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States.
Dr. Cooley performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States.David J. Phillip/Associated Press/file 1999

HOUSTON — 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, Dr. 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.

The Texas Heart Institute, which Dr. Cooley founded, confirmed his death. He stopped performing surgery on his 87th birthday but had never retired, remaining active at the institute as its president emeritus. The institute said he last showed up there Monday.


A former college basketball star who was a towering presence in the operating room, Dr. Cooley had performed more than 5,000 cardiac operations, including 17 heart transplants, by age 50.

‘‘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.

For more than six decades his name was inextricably linked to that of his mentor and former partner, Michael DeBakey, the developer of the artificial heart. Their pioneering techniques for surgery on the heart and blood vessels have helped tens of thousands of patients.

But those advances were overshadowed on April 4, 1969, when Dr. Cooley, working independently of DeBakey, performed his groundbreaking implantation without DeBakey’s authorization. At the time, DeBakey and a medical team were developing the artificial heart — it was still an experimental device — at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.


DeBakey felt betrayed. Suddenly, his protégé was his archrival. So began a feud that would last 40 years and end only a year before DeBakey’s death in 2008.

Dr. Cooley long defended his action as a doctor’s obligation to do whatever is necessary to save a patient’s life.

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, Dr. 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 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. 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. Thomas later received a second transplant, and he lived about seven months — making him the first US 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. 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 DeBakey, who alleged that Dr. Cooley took the heart used in Karp from his laboratory.

And though he and DeBakey reconciled, their rivalry never completely abated. DeBakey has been called the greatest surgeon ever. Before his death in 2008, he said in an interview that Dr. Cooley was “one of the best cardiovascular surgeons” he had ever known.

Asked in a separate interview whom he considered the greatest surgeon, Dr. Cooley replied, “Besides myself?”

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

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

Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.