Photo of Denton Cooley

Denton Cooley

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Medicine

For his inspirational skill, leadership, and technical accomplishments during six decades practicing cardiovascular surgery, including performing the first successful human heart transplant in the United States and the world’s first implantation of an artificial heart in man as a bridge to heart transplantation; and for founding the Texas Heart Institute, which has served more heart patients than any other institution in the world.

There may not have been a more aptly named musical act in Texas. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Denton Cooley played upright bass in a swing band called the Heartbeats. It was around the same time that Cooley became the first surgeon in the world to perform a total artificial heart transplant.

In 1969, Cooley, then a doctor at Baylor College of Medicine, had a dying patient, but no donor heart available for transplant. Not certain when such a heart would become available, Cooley instead implanted a half-pound device developed by a colleague. The machine, known as an artificial heart, was an air-driven, double-ventricle pump connected to an external power unit about the size of a washing machine. The artificial heart kept the patient alive for three days, until a donor heart became available. The first human-to-human heart transplant had only been performed two years earlier.

Once asked by a lawyer during a trial whether he considered himself to be the best heart surgeon in the world, Cooley reportedly replied in the affirmative. “Don’t you think that’s being rather immodest,” the lawyer asked.

“Perhaps,” Cooley replied. “But remember, I’m under oath.”

By Jake New