Remembering Dr. Cooley’s First Heart Transplant and Honoring Organ Donors

April is Donate Life Month, which was established by Donate Life America to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye, and tissue donors and to honor those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

In the middle of the afternoon on May 2, 1968, a teenaged girl was brought to Ben Taub Hospital with a gunshot wound. Although she would not survive her injuries, she was about to play an integral part in one of the great achievements in cardiac history: the first successful human heart transplant in the United States.


As it happened, she had been a patient of Dr. Cooley’s at the age of 9, when he had corrected a coarctation of her aorta. Now, 6 years later, her family requested that she be moved from Ben Taub to St. Luke’s so that Dr. Cooley could treat her again. She was transferred that evening, and, after physicians could find no indication of brain activity, her family granted permission for her heart to be transplanted into a 47-year-old father of three who had badly calcified valves. It was an extraordinary decision made under the most tragic of circumstances.


At the time, there was no formalized way for medical professionals to match organs with those who needed a second chance at life. So, within a few months of Cooley’s first transplant, five Houston women had established “The Living Bank” as the nation’s first organ donor registry, which also served as the first program to provide education about organ donation and transplantation. Dr. Cooley and other members of his team soon signed on with the Living Bank as organ donors—as did individuals from Maine to California and from Canada to Mexico.


Today, more than 100,000 people are waiting for a lifesaving transplant, and 20 die each day because the organ they need is not available. Until artificial or bioartificial hearts, like those being researched at THI, are developed, only humans can give these gifts of life.


Just one donor can potentially help more than 75 people. Register to become an organ, eye, and tissue donor at

Read more in a Houston Chronicle article from May 4, 1968 

Learn more about the first organ donor registry founded in Houston