Dr. Cooley and the Artificial Heart

By Kenan Nerad

Denton Cooley was born on August 22, 1920, at Houston’s Memorial Baptist Hospital. The son of a prominent Houston dentist and grandson to one of the founders of the Heights, Denton Cooley spent his childhood in a Montrose home off West Alabama Street. He attended local public schools throughout his early education at Montrose Elementary School, Sidney Lanier Jr. High School,

Dr. Denton Cooley; Photo courtesy of the John P. McGovern Historical Research Center

and San Jacinto High School. Cooley entered UT in 1937 as a freshman in the pre-dental program, with plans to work in his father’s practice. However, a fateful trip to San Antonio’s Santa Rosa Hospital altered his career path. There he assisted a fellow friend, an intern at Santa Rosa Hospital, in sewing a knife wound. Cooley was so enthralled by the experience that upon returning to UT, he changed his major to premedical.

Watch Bullock Texas State History Museum’s video to learn more about Cooley’s life, hear his colleagues’ thoughts on Cooley’s innovative surgical techniques and to see archival footage. Note: Some of the footage shows open-heart surgeries.

Cooley’s decision to switch career paths went beyond changing his life’s course and professional journey. The decision had a tremendous impact on the lives of all those Dr. Cooley would come to save through his medical advancements and expertise. The years of medical school, trainings and partnerships with prominent surgeons of the time and new surgical technologies — some of which were pioneered by Cooley himself — culminated to this one single moment in medical history. On April 8, 1969, Cooley completed the first total artificial heart transplant. The patient, Haskell Karp, emerged from surgery to find that his failing heart was replaced by an artificial heart made entirely of plastic. Such an operation had never been done before and was inconceivable to many, but Dr. Denton Cooley and his team at the Texas Heart Institute capitalized on decades of cardiovascular advances to save the life of a dying patient.

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The artificial heart implanted in Haskell Karp as seen on exhibit in 2013. Photo Courtesy of Karon Flage, Flickr.

Click here to go to the companion website for NOVA’s “Cut to the Heart” program. Here you can find some information on the history of heart surgery, an introduction to the heart’s anatomy, a brief overview of heart disease and its treatment, as well as other interesting facts.

Watch UTMB’s Health Media Services’ video to hear commentary from Dr. Cooley himself about his education, the people who inspired him and his career milestones.

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