World-renowned heart surgeon and medical pioneer, Dr. Denton A. Cooley, passes at age 96

Houston, TX (November 18, 2016) – Friends and colleagues at the Texas Heart Institute, join with his family in mourning the death of world-renowned heart surgeon and medical pioneer Dr. Denton A. Cooley.
Cooley, who founded THI as a premier cardiovascular research and education institution in 1962, and served as its surgeon-in chief for more than 40 years, died today at the age of 96 after a long life.
“We’ve lost a dear friend and transformational leader, but the world has lost a medical genius and a great humanitarian,” said THI President Dr. James T. Willerson. “Dr. Cooley dedicated his life to healing hearts, and the number of lives he saved and improved over the years cannot be counted.”
Cooley, a pioneering heart surgeon and son of a Houston dentist, was born in 1920. He attended Houston Public Schools and graduated from San Jacinto High School. He then attended The University of Texas at Austin where he was a member of Kappa Sigma Fraternity. Cooley was a member of the Southwest Conference Champion basketball teams of that era. He graduated with highest honors and Phi Beta Kappa. He attended The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for two years and transferred to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore where he graduated in 1944 with highest honors and Alpha Omega Alpha. Cooley completed his surgical residency under Dr. Alfred Blalock, serving for six years with a leave of absence between 1946 and 1948 to serve military duty in the 124th Station Hospital, Linz, Austria. As an intern under Blalock, Cooley assisted in the first “blue-baby” operation, which he referred to as possibly being “the dawn of the modern era of heart surgery.” Upon completing his residency, he joined Russell Brock at Brompton Hospital in London, England where he was senior surgical registrar.
Upon completing his training, Cooley entered the full-time medical faculty of Baylor College of Medicine where he served from 1951 to 1969 when he resigned to lead the Texas Heart Institute, where he was already surgeon-in-chief. Cooley was a member or honorary member of over 50 professional societies around the world and a dozen fraternities and clubs.
Cooley’s list of accomplishments is lengthy. Among his more than 120 honors and awards are the Grand Hamdan International Award for Medical Science presented in Dubai in November 2000; the National Medal of Technology presented by President William “Bill” Clinton in 1999; the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, presented by President Ronald Reagan in 1984; the Theodore Roosevelt award given by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to a varsity athlete who has achieved national recognition in his profession; and the Rene Leriche Prize, the highest honor of the International Surgical Society for cardiovascular contributions. Cooley received the American Surgical Association Medallion of Scientific Achievement for “Distinguished Service to Surgery” in April 2010. He has been named Distinguished Alumnus for both The University of Texas and Johns Hopkins University where he served on the board of trustees. He received honorary degrees from five American and three foreign universities. He was named Honorary Fellow of five Royal Colleges of Surgery: Glasgow, Scotland, Australasia, Ireland, England and Edinburgh. Cooley received decorations from 12 foreign countries including Argentina, Ecuador, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Spain, the Netherlands and Venezuela.
Cooley performed the first successful human heart transplant in the U.S. in 1968 and the first human implantation of a total artificial heart in the world in 1969. He contributed to the techniques for repair and replacement of diseased heart valves and is widely known for his pioneering surgical treatment of cardiac anomalies of infants and children. Cooley served as Texas Children’s Hospital’s first chief of cardiovascular surgery and was a major force behind the creation of Texas Children’s Heart Center, believing young people needed to be treated by surgeons specially trained in pediatric surgery. In doing so, Cooley paved the way for Texas Children’s to be the leading place in the world for pediatric cardiac surgery. Along with his team, Cooley performed over 120,000 open heart operations.
Cooley believed his major professional accomplishment was the creation of the THI and developing a school of surgery. More than 800 surgeons are members of the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society.
The Denton A. Cooley Building completed in 2002 for the THI was provided largely by donations from patients, friends and colleagues. It has facilities for education, research and 12 operating rooms for cardiovascular surgery.
Cooley was preceded in death by his wife of 67 years, Louise Thomas Cooley and their daughter Florence Talbot Cooley. Dr. Cooley and Mrs. Cooley have five daughters, 16 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren. He enjoyed spending time with his family at their ranch and at their Galveston beach house. Cooley enjoyed many hobbies, but was an avid golfer.
For information about the memorial service and to see video and images from his life and career, visit
About the Texas Heart Institute
Texas Heart Institute, founded by world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Denton A. Cooley in 1962, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the devastating toll of cardiovascular disease through innovative and progressive programs in research, education and improved patient care. Together with its clinical partner, CHI St. Luke’s Health – Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, it has been ranked among the top cardiovascular centers in the United States by U.S. News & World Report’s annual guide to “America’s Best Hospitals” for the past 25 years. More information about THI (@Texas_Heart) is available at