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Interview with: Dr. Denton Arthur Cooley
Interviewed by: William H. Kellar, Ph.D.
Date: August 4, 2007
DAC: My name is Denton Arthur Cooley and I was born in Houston, Texas on August 22, 1920. I think the place of birth was the old Memorial Baptist Hospital downtown. The obstetrician was Dr. E.W. Bertner who was a renowned physician. Oddly enough, became the founder of The Texas Medical Center. I went to Houston public schools. I grew up in the Montrose section. My grandfather, however, moved to Houston in 1890 and he, along with Mr. O.B. Carter, really laid out the Houston Heights. Mr. Carter bought acreage out there on the northwest side of Houston and named it the Heights because it was about 4 or 5 feet higher in elevation than downtown Houston but my grandfather was very active in laying out the Houston Heights. The first elementary school was Cooley Elementary School in the Heights. A lot of people think that I was raised in the Heights but when I was born, my father moved with my older brother from the Rice Hotel out to this new addition called Montrose. And the house where I really spent my infancy was over on West Alabama. It is still there. In fact, my children always called it "The Manger." So, I have a long history in growing up in Houston.
I went to Montrose School, what we called elementary school, and then the Sidney Lanier which is now known as middle school, was called junior high school. And then, I went to San Jacinto High School and graduated in 1937. I have many recollections of San Jacinto but my athletic endeavors there really are something that I have very fond memories of. In fact, one of the exciting things that happened to me -- I was designated on the All City basketball team. At the time, there were 5 high schools in Houston and it was quite an honor, I thought, to be in that All City designation. After graduating from high school, I matriculated at University of Texas at Austin in 1937. I enjoyed the 4 years that I spent there on the campus. I was involved in fraternity life at Kappa Sigma Fraternity. I played basketball all 4 years that I was there and played on the Southwest Championship basketball team in 1939. We won the Southwest Conference Championship. Made a lot of trips with the basketball team to San Francisco to play in the first regional NCAA competition there in the first tournament that they had of the regional basketball. I played at Madison Square Garden at another trip and so forth.
I majored in zoology at the University and made good grades. When it was time to select a medical school, I actually chose the medical branch in Galveston. I had been accepted at Baylor in Dallas and at Tulane in New Orleans, but my first choice was the medical school in Galveston. While at Galveston and during my sophomore year, there were some problems with the faculty in the dean's office there and I got a little bit discouraged about the future of the school and transferred to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and finished my medical education there, graduating with a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1944. Then, I entered the house staff there for postgraduate training and remained there on the house staff until 1950. I did my military service in that period though. I spent 2 years in the military service in the Medical Corps. I was a captain in the Medical Corps and I was Chief of Surgery in a hospital in Lintz, Austria, which is a town on the Danube River. It was a very interesting experience and a nice sort of respite from my training - a very enjoyable time there in Europe during that rather critical post-war period.
Upon returning to Johns Hopkins Hospital, I finished there in 1950. During that time, I had many experiences in heart surgery. In fact, I was privileged to assist on the first blue baby operation in November of 1944. And that was really, I think, the dawn of heart surgery and it gave me the opportunity to be a witness and a participant in the evolution of this new specialty of cardiac surgery. Prior to that time, surgeons were discouraged from ever trying to operate on the human heart. There were many admonitions given by predecessors in medicine about surgeons invading the heart. But from that day forward, the door gradually opened or rapidly opened for all sorts of surgery. I spent 1 year . . .
WK: What was the blue baby surgery?
DAC: Well, the blue baby operation . . . these are children, critical little infants that are born with an anomaly in the heart. So, with these set of anomalies, the blood does not . . . when it comes back to the heart from the body, it does not move through the lungs. It is sort of bypassed away from the lungs back out into the body. So, the blue blood, which has low oxygen, does not get into the circulation of the lung where it becomes oxygenated. So, they are blue. And the operation which Dr. Blalock and his colleagues worked out, they took the blood that was going back out into the body and then with a connection of the artery to the artery of the lung, brought that blood back to be recycled through the lung. And it was really an impressive result because you could just witness these little children, before you opened this connection, they were intensely cyanotic or blue, and then you opened the connection and suddenly, they become pink and, really, a revelation at the time.
Anyway, after finishing at Johns Hopkins . . . while at Johns Hopkins, I met my wife who is my wife today, Louise Thomas Cooley. Her father was a surgeon in Frederick, Maryland, which is a town about 45 miles from Baltimore. She was a registered nurse there at Johns Hopkins. About 1 year later, in 1950, our first daughter was born, little Mary. And I took my wife and my baby daughter to London for 1 year to work with the number 1 heart surgeon in London, a man named Russell Brock who later became Lord Brock of Wimbledon. I had a very enjoyable time there. Then, in 1951, I moved back to Houston and joined the faculty of the Baylor College of Medicine. At that time, it was Baylor University College of Medicine, but now changed to Baylor College of Medicine. I was on the full-time faculty under Dr. Michael DeBakey who was the new appointed Chief of Surgery at Baylor. And then, I continued my interest in cardiovascular surgery and brought some of these operations back to Houston that I had helped to develop in Baltimore and in London.
The opportunity which I had in Houston was really unusual. Shortly after I came back to Houston, they opened the Texas Children's Hospital which, my principal interest was in children's heart surgery and conditions because of my background with the original blue baby operation. But then, this St. Luke's Hospital opened up in 1954, The Methodist Hospital opened up in 1954, and with working at those 3 hospitals mostly, I was able to evolve all of this work in cardiovascular surgery. It has been a real opportunity, a unique opportunity, to be a young surgeon starting his career and to have this new Medical Center develop and this new specialty of heart surgery there. It was just an unusual opportunity to develop myself personally but also contribute to the field of medicine and surgery.
Well, I have had many interesting experiences in Houston, particularly in cardiovascular surgery. I was able to do the first successful cardiac transplantation in the United States in 1968. One year later, I implanted the first total artificial heart in a patient after we had removed his heart which was a completely nonfunctioning heart. We took out his heart and put in this mechanical device and that really opened a lot of new opportunities in surgery. Then, during that same period, I conceded to the idea of having a specialty institution devoted to cardiovascular surgery and medicine with emphasis on research and education. So, in 1962, I chartered the Texas Heart Institute, which has continued to operate. We now enjoy our new facility here in the Medical Center, and Texas Heart Institute is right in the midst of this whole complex of major hospitals. And the opportunities -- and I keep using that word "opportunity" -- but the opportunities keep presenting themselves. Now, I have been able to collect a staff here at our Heart Institute and the reputation of the Texas Heart Institute increases as time goes by. For example, each year, the U.S. World and News Report ranks hospitals according to their level of excellence. For the last 16 years, our Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Hospital had ranked in the top 10 heart centers in the United States and currently, we are up to number 6. So, we are very gratified about that. So much of it is due to the accumulation of an outstanding faculty of cardiologists, surgeons, and all of the personnel that support our activities here at the Texas Heart Institute.
WK: It must be particularly gratifying to be able to come back home and have your career in your hometown.
DAC: It really is a wonderful thing to have that occur to me. I look back . . . why, how could I have been so fortunate as to have this medical center here, have a new specialty to work in? Once we began doing, say, open heart surgery, almost every operation we did was unique and reportable. Today, of course, so much of that has become more or less routine. But it was so exciting. I do not think anything will be as exciting as the first cardiac transplantations. It just almost electrified the world, to think that how could a physician or surgeon take a beating heart out of one individual and put it in the chest of another patient? But that was before we had ever really seriously thought about this matter which we now call brain death as a sign or an indication of death because people did not quite appreciate the fact that you have a serious brain injury, a terminal brain injury, and some of these organs continued to work for a period of time. And the heart is one of those. Some time after a brain injury, the heart will continue to pump rather efficiently for 36 to 48 hours, and that is the window of opportunity, of course, to remove the heart and use it for a recipient.
WK: Would you talk a little bit about your father and his background, and your brother and your mom?
DAC: Well, my father was 1 of 3 sons. My grandfather brought 3 sons down from Nebraska when he moved to Houston. One of them was Denton, one of them was Arthur and my dad's name was Ralph. So, my brother was Ralph, Jr., and I am Denton Arthur for my 2 uncles. My dad actually wanted to go into medicine but when he went up to University of Texas at Austin, he had asthma real badly and they also, in those days, the hazing was rather severe and he got a terrible bout of asthma. He came back to Houston and after he recovered from this bout of asthma, his mother did not want him to go back up to Austin. She told him that there was a new dental school that just opened down on Texas Avenue here and maybe he could enroll down there. So, with his high school diploma, he went down to the dental school and was accepted and graduated as a practicing dentist when he was 19 years old. So, he practiced dentistry in Houston throughout his entire active life. He was excellent, had a very good reputation. He probably was considered one of the best technical dentists in restorative dentistry at that time, and he invented a number of dental products. One of them was Copalite which is still in use today by dentists and has been sort of a family industry.
My niece and nephew still produce Copalite and sell it to the dental profession. But my dad was very proud of being a Houstonian and he sort of imparted that feeling into my brother and myself. And it has always been interesting to me how people like my father felt that Houston really belonged to them, that they were an integral part of it. One of my father's good friends was a man named Fred Elliott who was also very instrumental in developing the Texas Medical Center and served as president of the Medical Center. But he was a dentist and very fine man. I had the opportunity to know him and all of the prominent physicians in Houston, and that certainly encouraged me to pursue the profession of medicine because I admired all of these people. And, of course, my role model was Dr. E.W. Bertner. His street is right out here in front of our Heart Institute. I think it is really a unique thing -- his mother's obstetrician had him memorialized right here within 50 yards of where we are. But he was my . . . well, he was really an inspiring individual.
There were many other individuals in Houston. I knew Mr. Jesse Jones, Mr. John Henry Kirby and people of that generation -- all wonderful people, just very inspiring personalities.
WK: And your father was pretty close friends with Dr. Bertner also.
DAC: Oh, yes, particularly in their unmarried years, they were real partners and cronies, and they shared a lot of wonderful experiences with us. Dr. Bertner did not have any children of his own. He adopted me and my brother and took us fishing with him and all those sorts of things. Every time I came back to Houston when I was, say, up at Johns Hopkins, I would go visit Dr. Bertner. He had a real tragedy the last time I visited him -- it might have been about 1949 when he was suffering with terminal cancer -- after he had been so involved in the development of M.D. Anderson Hospital, and then to turn up with cancer himself and really died of this sarcoma.
WK: How has the city changed since you were a child, before you went off to Johns Hopkins?
DAC: Well, of course, it changed enormously. When I was born, I think the population of Houston was something like 130,000, and, of course, today, here it is approaching 3 million, I think. Unbelievable! To look at downtown Houston and say, wouldn't I have loved to just have my father and my grandfather see what is going on in Houston? Houston is, as we all know, already one of the prominent cities, not only of this hemisphere but I think of the universe. I mean, the whole planet looks to Houston, Texas, and I think it is just unusual.
WK: Do you recall much about polio in Houston and that campaign to eradicate it?
DAC: Oh, yes. I remember it very, very well. Of course, all the mothers were worried that their children were going to get polio. They tried to protect us and all sorts of things, you know, not knowing much about the disease. But we were all taught not to . . . we were worried about going to swimming pools and so on. I can remember swimming in the Buffalo Bayou there and I always said that was my vaccination against polio, swimming in the bayou. But I can recall so well visiting some of these centers here, particularly over here on Montrose Boulevard where they had a whole room full of patients on these respirators, these drinker respirators -- a big box with the patient inside with the changing volume of air in the box so as to ventilate the lungs. And those poor people lying up there helpless, paralyzed from the waist down. It was really a tragic thing. And to bring in the Salk and the Sabin vaccines just revolutionized medical practice. It was almost like the eradication of smallpox. Smallpox was not such a problem during my vintage because we had vaccinations but then polio came along without any cure for it. It was really a devastating thing, psychologically as well as physically and health-wise. But now, I almost never hear about a case of polio. I understand there are a few cases around the planet but we have almost eliminated that virus.
WK: Were you here during Hurricane Carla in 1961?
DAC: I certainly was. You know, I was coming back from a medical meeting, I think up in New York, and the plane could not land in Houston. They said they were having a storm. I said, "I have got to get back to Houston." I came in, through New Orleans and tried to rent a car. And the rental agents would not release a car. But I finally talked one into releasing a car. I will never forget, there was a real nice man there in New Orleans at the airport who also needed to get to Houston. So, he and I drove through Carla from New Orleans to Houston and I will tell you, it was a harrowing experience. That was the first time I had ever been in the midst of a real hurricane, and we were driving right through it. The car was almost blown off the road. All the electric wires were down and that sort of thing. It was a really terrifying experience.
WK: How long did it take you to make your way back home then?
DAC: I think it took us about 8 hours to drive from New Orleans. I think we were coming in about 4 o'clock in the morning and it was really something. I got home and my family was all secure there at home. And then, I went right straight to the hospital because I had surgery scheduled that day. So, I was able to make it to my assigned operations.
WK: Would you talk a little bit about how the Texas Medical Center has changed?
DAC: Well, of course, having grown up in Houston, I remember this area here, I used to shoot doves and birds out here on this property, and we had also some enjoyable things going on here. Hermann Park, of course, has opened up but out this way, it was completely undeveloped. And when finally the M.D. Anderson Foundation bought this property from the city and began to develop it, the plans for our new medical center were under way. And since then, the construction and development has never ceased. It goes on today. Every place you look, it has changed. So, I have many memories of this when it was nothing but a pasture.
WK: And would you talk just a bit about the change in terms of the arts in Houston?
DAC: The arts?
WK: Yes, sir.
DAC: Well, there has always been a group of people in Houston who have had many artistic interests and abilities, too. The art museum, which has been here for over 50 years, has expanded and continues to expand, and the arts in terms of everything that we have in that category -- music and dance, theater, and all of that, has developed so remarkably and I am so proud of our city as a big cultural center today, not just an oil center or a medical center, but as a cultural center.
WK: As you look back over time, is there anything particularly surprising in terms of how Houston has grown and changed that really stands out in your mind?
DAC: Well, I do not know how to answer a question like that but I noticed that Houston has grown in so many directions, unlike a lot of cities that have some geographic boundary like being out on the ocean or something where you can only grow in one direction. Houston has the ability to grow in all directions. And the urban sprawl, I mean, the suburban sprawl, the rural sprawl around Houston is so remarkable. You know, you can go out here 25 miles and you are still in Houston. You know, it is all developed out there now and so on. Of course, what we need to do is to bring more people back downtown. Transportation has become a real problem in Houston, having access to downtown for people out in the rural or suburban areas. It is a big problem and will be forever until we become like some of the more mature older cities such as New York or Philadelphia where so many people are living downtown in high-rise buildings. I think we are beginning to see that occurring here in Houston now and will see in the next 10 years a lot of downtown dwellings develop buildings and so on, and bring people back in the city.
WK: To go back to your career for a moment, what would you define as the highlights, the things you are most proud of in your career in medicine?
DAC: Well, that is easy for me to answer. I certainly have enjoyed being a participant in all this growth of the Medical Center and in medicine and surgery in Houston. The thing that I would consider my real contribution is the creation of the Texas Heart Institute, and creating a school of surgery. A lot of the things that we surgeons do, and I like to say we did this first -- nobody has ever done it before -- but I think our legacy, my legacy, will be the School of Surgery. The influence I have had on so many young surgeons in their learning years, go away feeling that debt to what they have achieved or what they learned, how they developed while they were in our hospital and in our Heart Institute. So, those two things, the Texas Heart Institute and the School of Surgery, and all of the young doctors that I have been able to train here, over almost 1,500 surgeons, a lot of their education to experiences here.
WK: And I think we have pretty much covered what I wanted to talk about.