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How Dr. Cooley Changed Heart Surgery

Sandra Yates
Archivist & Special Collections Librarian

On November 18, 2016 the Texas Medical Center lost one of its most renowned pioneers in medicine. Dr. Denton A. Cooley revolutionized cardiovascular surgery, transforming open heart surgery from one of the most high-risk and high-mortality medical procedures to a low-risk and common life-saving procedure.

“… I think a major contribution that I made with my team here, that surgery could be done in a very practical and reproducible way…
~ Dr. Denton A. Cooley

Dr. Cooley, the founder of the Texas Heart Institute, attended the University of Texas and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he graduated in 1944. After serving in the Army Medical Corps and studying with Lord Russell Brock in London, he returned to his hometown of Houston, Texas to teach surgery at Baylor College of Medicine in the 1950s. The Texas Heart Institute was founded on August 3, 1962 in order to research and treat cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. Among many innovations developed by Cooley and his colleagues at the Institute are the first implantation of an artificial heart, the first successful heart transplant in the United States, advances in treatment of congenital defects, and a number of prostheses and implants.
The McGovern Historical Center houses the IC043 Texas Heart Institute Film Collection which contains 277 reels of 16mm film and 86 videotapes. This collection contains films related to heart surgery at the Texas Medical Center, primarily during the 1960s and 1970s. Films are typically instructional with brief surgical and case histories at the beginning. The films follow the surgery step-by-step with voice over narration and diagrams inserted to illustrate the process and techniques used. Below is an example of one of these instructional films, many of which distributed by the American College of Surgeons. Dr. Cooley appears on camera to introduce each procedure.

Surgical Treatment of Ventricular Septal Defects: Technique & Results in 292 Cases, 1961

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Dr. Cooley made heart surgery accessible to more patients, and he often took on cases that other doctors would not. He developed new techniques to reduce dependency on blood transfusions, making open heart surgery available to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“In the early 1960s, I was able to show that we did not need to have a lot of blood to prime the system that was used. I showed that we could use what we called an electrolyte solution, a glucose solution, so you were not as dependent upon the blood bank to collect 8-10 units of blood on the day of surgery and then do the surgery that day. But after we showed that you could do it with this glucose solution, we would be able to operate on Jehovah’s Witnesses that would not even permit any kind of blood transfusion.” ~Dr. Denton A. Cooley

Open Heart Surgery in a Jehovah’s Witness: Repair Mitral Regurgitation, 1962

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While the first artificial heart was one of his most notable achievements, Dr. Cooley developed prostheses and implants that repaired nearly every section of the heart, from arteries to heart valves. Below is a film demonstrating the Cooley-Meadox Double Velour Grafts. You will notice the product packaging, which exemplifies what Dr. Cooley expressed as his greatest contribution to medicine — practical and reproducible products for heart surgery.

Cooley-Meadox Double Velour Grafts in Vascular Surgery, circa 1976

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In 2014 the McGovern Historical Center had 68 films from the Texas Heart Institute Film Collection digitized by the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI), and they are available for viewing on the 1st Floor of The TMC Library as well as in the Reading Room of the McGovern Historical Center.

[Sources: Texas Heart Institute website; The Houston Review of Houston History and Culture, vol. 2, no. 1, p.16-19; IC043 Texas Heart Institute Film Collection, McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library]