Dr. Denton Cooley, pioneer of heart transplants, dies at 96

HOUSTON – Dr. Denton Cooley, a Houston native and a pioneer of heart transplants, died Friday. He was 96.

Born in 1920, Cooley graduated with highest honors from the University of Texas Austin and earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1944.

Cooley performed the first transplant of a human heart in the United States in 1968. The following year, he became the first surgeon to implant an artificial heart in a human.

In 1962, Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute, where he was serving as the president emeritus and surgeon-in-chief emeritus.

PHOTOS: Dr. Denton Cooley through the years

At the time of his death, Cooley was also serving as a surgery consultant at Texas Children's Hospital and a surgery professor at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded Cooley the Medal of Freedom - the nation's highest civilian honor.

Cooley’s wife, Louise, died in October.

Dr. Denton Cooley timeline provided by Texas Children's Hospital:

Dr. Denton A. Cooley was born in Houston on Aug. 22, 1920 to Ralph Clarkson and Mary Fraley Cooley. Ralph was a prominent Houston dentist, and Cooley’s grandfather, Daniel Denton Cooley, was a founder of the Houston Heights neighborhood.

Cooley considered Dr. Alfred Blalock to be a pioneer in cardiology and resolved to follow in his footsteps. Cooley obtained his medical degree in 1944 and assisted Blalock in correcting an infant’s congenital heart defect, an operation known as the “Blue Baby” procedure.

Cooley joined the Army Medical Corps in 1946 and served as chief of surgical services at the station hospital in Austria. After two years, he was discharged with the rank of captain in 1948.

Cooley married Louise Goldborough Thomas, a registered nurse, in 1949. The couple was blessed with five daughters, who gave them several grandchildren.

Cooley joined Baylor College of Medicine, where he served on the full-time faculty for 18 years as a professor of surgery.

In 1954, Cooley started performing heart surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital, shaping its pediatric heart program and leading it for some time before becoming a consultant in Cardiovascular Surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. The nonprofit is a recognized world leader in research, education and patient care, and is recognized nationally and around the world for its many significant contributions in the fight against heart disease.

The International Surgical Society awarded him the Reneé Lebiche Prize, its highest honor, in 1967, calling him “the most valuable surgeon of the heart and blood vessel anywhere in the world.”

Cooley performed his first human heart transplant in May 1968, just months after Dr. Christiaan Barnard had performed the world’s first successful human heart transplant.

In 1969, Cooley implanted an artificial heart in a human being for the first time. The patient, Haskell Karp, lived for 64 hours with the implanted device before it could be replaced with a donor’s heart.

In 1984, former President Ronald Reagan presented Cooley with the United States’ highest civilian award, the National Medal of Freedom for his great contributions to the field of medical science.

President William “Bill” Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Technology—the highest honor for technological innovation in the U.S.—in 1998.

Texas Children’s Hospital created the Dr. Denton A. Cooley Lectureship in Surgical Innovation to honor Cooley and his accomplishments.

Former Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker proclaimed Feb. 28, 2012, the last day of the nationally recognized Heart Month, as Dr. Denton A. Cooley Day in Houston.

Texas Children’s Hospital announced a new fellowship for surgical innovation in honor of Cooley. Funded by The Auxiliary to Texas Children’s Hospital, Texas Children’s volunteer-led service organization, the goal of the grant is to advance surgical research that focuses on innovative ways to help children and save lives. The recipient of this fellowship is selected by the Department of Surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Former president George H.W. Bush released this statement about Cooley's passing:

"Barbara and I join the thousands of Houstonians, Americans, and admirers around the world who today are mourning the loss of a true giant, Dr. Denton Cooley. Denton’s pioneering contributions to medicine are, of course, legend. But he also was a lifelong and leading citizen of Houston. All of us who call Houston home will always feel blessed to live in the city where Denton founded the Texas Heart Institute, making our hometown the global center of cardiovascular research and technology. You could even say it helps us sleep a little better at night. And of course Denton was a wonderful husband, father, and friend. He will be greatly missed, but we are happy he can rejoin his beloved Louise."


Community reacts to Cooley's death

"Such a legacy. Such an amazing man. What a loss. Sending my prayers and comfort to family and friends," Lisa J. wrote.

"RIP. Thank you for being there for my father's transplant," Mary C. wrote.

"RIP, Dr. Cooley. Dr. Cooley operated on my daughter in the 70s. I'm happy to say surgery was a success. Thank you for your dedicated services, Dr. Cooley," Patricia H. wrote.