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Michael E. Debakey

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For his pioneering medical innovations throughout his medical career and his unique ability to bring his vast professional knowledge to bear on public policy as a national and international medical statesman.

As a child, Michael E. DeBakey enjoyed working with hands. He would take apart and put back together car engines with his brother. His mother taught him how to sew and knit. He would go on to use those hands to become one of the world’s most innovative heart surgeons.

DeBakey pioneered and help popularize many types of surgical procedures over the course of his career from being the first to repair types of aortic aneurysms in the 1950s to overseeing the first multiple-organ transplant in 1968. He was also one of the first surgeons to perform heart transplants and coronary artery bypass procedures, which allow blood to flow to the heart by forming new vessels.

He also had a knack for inventing medical equipment as well. While in medical school, he invented a roller pump that would go on to be used in heart-lung machines, which keep a patient alive during open heart surgery. On a suggestion from a department store clerk, he decided to make artificial arteries and tubes out of Dacron instead of nylon. Dacron grafts proved to be much more resilient and became an industry standard. In the 1960s, he pushed for the development of artificial hearts and ventricular assist devices.

In 2006, DeBakey made history as a patient, becoming the oldest person at age 97 to undergo surgery for a dissecting aortic aneurysm — a procedure for which he had invented just over 50 years earlier.

DeBakey regularly performed surgeries until he was in his 80s. He estimated he performed more than 60,000 operations and trained several thousand surgeons during his career.

By Jacob Kerr