Did you know? Surgeons Crowded the Operating Room to Observe New Techniques at THI

You may have seen the photograph or painting of the crowded OR in which Dr. Cooley performed one of many masterful open-heart surgeries, but you may not be familiar with its story.

In 1956, Dr. Cooley and his surgical team began performing open-heart operations at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital (SLEH) and Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH) using a heart-lung machine that allowed surgery on the heart itself. The ability to perform surgeries on the heart while the blood was circulated and oxygenated by a machine allowed for more complex procedures to be performed and a deluge of patients came to Houston for life-saving operations. By 1962, SLEH and TCH had the most active open-heart program in the world, prompting Dr. Cooley to found the Texas Heart Institute (THI) as a cardiac facility affiliated with SLEH and TCH that would include research and education as part of its program.

In April 1963, the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS) held its 53rd annual meeting at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel, blocks away from the Texas Medical Center (TMC) in Houston. Noted thoracic surgeons from around the world were in attendance, including Clarence Crafoord (Stockholm, Sweden) and Walton Lillehei (University of Minnesota). Many surgeons arrived before the meeting and remained afterward for the purpose of observing open-heart surgery in the operating suite at St. Luke’s and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Up to 50 observers were present during each procedure. The visiting surgeons crowded the operating room to witness the use of a new open-heart surgical technique in which a disposable oxygenating chamber was used as the artificial lung during cardiopulmonary bypass and a glucose solution was substituted for blood in priming the pump that completed the heart-lung machine. The famous photograph of the crowded OR captured one of these early on-pump heart surgeries.

Upon viewing the photograph, SLEH administrator Dr. Maynard W. Martin remarked in the Intercom newsletter, with a touch of humor, that “In the best interests of patient care and the total program of education and research being developed in these hospitals, this occurrence emphasizes the need for more aggressive action on the part of the hospitals to implement at the earliest possible moment an expansion program.”

The photograph has always been a popular one, showing at a glance the interest in techniques developed in Houston and the early reputation of Dr. Cooley among his peers. The photograph was important to Dr. Cooley, as well—he commissioned his daughter Mary Cooley Craddock to paint the scene. Her oil painting hung in the 5th-floor lobby of THI’s Denton A. Cooley building for many years and is now displayed at the TMC Library.

Featured Image: Photograph of visiting surgeons crowded in the THI operating room to observe an open heart operation (1963).

Image Above: An oil painting of the photograph by Mary Cooley Craddock, which hung at THI for many years and is now displayed at the TMC Library.