Dr. Denton A. Cooley was born in Houston on Aug. 22, 1920 to Ralph Clarkson and Mary Fraley Cooley. Ralph was a prominent Houston dentist, and Cooley’s grandfather, Daniel Denton Cooley, was a founder of the Houston Heights neighborhood.
Cooley considered Dr. Alfred Blalock to be a pioneer in cardiology and resolved to follow in his footsteps. Cooley obtained his medical degree in 1944 and assisted Blalock in correcting an infant’s congenital heart defect, an operation known as the “Blue Baby” procedure.
Cooley joined the Army Medical Corps in 1946 and served as chief of surgical services at the station hospital in Austria. After two years, he was discharged with the rank of captain in 1948.
Cooley married Louise Goldborough Thomas, a registered nurse, in 1949. The couple was blessed with five daughters, who gave them several grandchildren.
Cooley joined Baylor College of Medicine, where he served on the full-time faculty for 18 years as a professor of surgery.
In 1954, Cooley started performing heart surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital, shaping its pediatric heart program and leading it for some time before becoming a consultant in Cardiovascular Surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. The nonprofit is a recognized world leader in research, education and patient care, and is recognized nationally and around the world for its many significant contributions in the fight against heart disease.
The International Surgical Society awarded him the Reneé Lebiche Prize, its highest honor, in 1967, calling him “the most valuable surgeon of the heart and blood vessel anywhere in the world.”
Cooley performed his first human heart transplant in May 1968, just months after Dr. Christiaan Barnard had performed the world’s first successful human heart transplant.
In 1969, Cooley implanted an artificial heart in a human being for the first time. The patient, Haskell Karp, lived for 64 hours with the implanted device before it could be replaced with a donor’s heart.
In 1984, former President Ronald Reagan presented Cooley with the United States’ highest civilian award, the National Medal of Freedom for his great contributions to the field of medical science.
President William “Bill” Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Technology—the highest honor for technological innovation in the U.S.—in 1998.
Texas Children’s Hospital created the Dr. Denton A. Cooley Lectureship in Surgical Innovation to honor Cooley and his accomplishments.
Former Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker proclaimed Feb. 28, 2012, the last day of the nationally recognized Heart Month, as Dr. Denton A. Cooley Day in Houston.
Texas Children’s Hospital announced a new fellowship for surgical innovation in honor of Cooley. Funded by The Auxiliary to Texas Children’s Hospital, Texas Children’s volunteer-led service organization, the goal of the grant is to advance surgical research that focuses on innovative ways to help children and save lives. The recipient of this fellowship is selected by the Department of Surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital.