Denton Cooley Biography

Denton Cooley, an American cardiologist, made history by performing the world’s first implantation of a total artificial heart. In the 1960s, when human heart transplants were still in their early stages, Cooley implanted an artificial heart into a patient, keeping them alive for 64 hours until a donor heart became available. Although he worked closely with renowned cardiologist Michael DeBakey, Cooley’s independent decision to perform the artificial heart implantation created a rift between the two. Cooley’s fascination with the human heart began during his childhood, and he pursued a career in medicine, finding guidance and mentorship from Dr. Alfred Blalock at Johns Hopkins. Overcoming a challenging upbringing, Cooley became a pioneer in cardiac surgery. Despite his busy schedule, he remains dedicated to his family and enjoys playing golf in his free time.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Denton Arthur Cooley
  • Died At Age: 96
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Louise Goldborough Thomas
    • Father: Ralph Cooley
    • Mother: Mary Cooley
  • Born Country: United States
  • Surgeons
  • Cardiologists
  • Died on: November 18, 2016
  • Place of death: Houston, Texas, United States
  • Notable Alumni: University Of Texas Medical Branch, Johns Hopkins School Of Medicine
  • City: Houston, Texas
  • U.S. State: Texas
  • More Facts
  • Education: University Of Texas At Austin, Johns Hopkins School Of Medicine, University Of Texas Medical Branch
  • Awards: U.S. National Medal of Technology (1998), U.S. National Medal of Freedom (1984), Renée Lebiche Prize (1967)

Childhood & Early Life

Denton A. Cooley was born on August 22, 1920, in Texas. Despite the Great Depression, his family lived comfortably due to his father’s successful dental practice. However, his father’s alcoholism complicated their relationship. Cooley was initially shy and insecure as a young boy, but he gained confidence when he started school. He excelled academically and in sports.

Cooley enrolled at the University of Texas, majoring in zoology and playing for the college basketball team. Initially, he aspired to become a dentist but later decided to pursue medicine. He began his medical education at the University of Texas Medical Branch before transferring to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It was at Johns Hopkins that he met Dr. Alfred Blalock, who became his mentor. Cooley considered Dr. Blalock a pioneer in cardiology and resolved to follow in his footsteps. He obtained his M.D. degree in 1944 and assisted Dr. Blalock in performing the “Blue Baby” procedure to correct an infant’s congenital heart defect.


After joining the Army Medical Corps in 1946, Cooley served as the chief of surgical services at the station hospital in Austria. He was discharged with the rank of captain in 1948. Following World War II, he returned to Johns Hopkins to complete his residency and remained there as an instructor in surgery. He also traveled to London in 1950 to work with the renowned British surgeon, Lord Russell Brock.

In the 1950s, Cooley moved to Houston to accept a position as the associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. He also worked at its affiliate institution, the Methodist Hospital. During this time, he collaborated with Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, an eminent cardiologist. Despite their brilliance, their egos often clashed, leading to a tumultuous relationship.

Cooley and his colleagues focused on developing artificial heart valves in the 1960s. Their work significantly reduced the mortality rate for heart valve transplants. In May 1968, Cooley performed his first human heart transplant, shortly after Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s groundbreaking procedure. In 1969, he implanted an artificial heart in a human for the first time. Although the patient lived for 64 hours with the device before receiving a donor heart, questions were raised about the decision to implant the artificial device. This incident strained Cooley’s relationship with Dr. DeBakey, leading to his resignation from Baylor.

By 1972, Cooley had performed over 1200 bypass surgeries and 10,000 open-heart operations, setting a world record for a cardiac surgeon.


In 1972, the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Foundation was established in his honor. Today, it boasts over 900 members from countries around the world. Cooley’s most significant achievement was implanting an artificial heart in a dying patient in 1969, keeping him alive for 64 hours. This breakthrough in medical science earned him numerous awards and recognition.

Cooley received the Renée Lebiche Prize from the International Surgical Society in 1967, which hailed him as the most valuable surgeon of the heart and blood vessels worldwide. In 1984, former President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. President Bill Clinton later awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1998 for his technological innovations in the field of medicine.

Cooley married Louise Goldborough Thomas, a registered nurse, in 1949. They have five daughters and several grandchildren.

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