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A history of UTHealth & the Texas Medical Center

Denton Cooley: Following the heart

Posted: April 11, 2014
Denton A. Cooley, MD

Denton A. Cooley, MD

1891 was a big year for health care and Texas.

That year, the new The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) opened the state’s first medical school we know today as The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB).

The same year, 65 miles to the north in Houston, the Omaha and South Texas Land Company in Ashland, Neb. purchased 1,765 unincorporated acres northwest of downtown, which we know today as the Houston Heights. And, yes, this purchase had a great deal to do with health care as you will see. At 75 feet above sea level, the Heights was considered a more healthy option than the lowlands of downtown that were 23 feet lower and considered swampy and prone to flooding.

Daniel Denton Cooley, treasurer and general manager of the Nebraska-based land company making that purchase, moved his young family to Houston two years later to help develop the Heights into one of Houston’s premier neighborhoods. In the early 1900s it was a Houston tradition for families to ride the Sunday afternoon trolley line to picnic and enjoy the parks and family atmosphere of the new development with beautiful Victorian mansions lining the new Heights Boulevard. The Heights was then a Houston jewel of a neighborhood as it is now.

Cooley as a San Jacinto High School graduate, 1937

Cooley as a San Jacinto High School
graduate, 1937

In one of these beautiful Victorian homes at 1802 Heights Blvd., Daniel Denton Cooley and his wife, Helen, raised their three young boys, Denton, Arthur and Ralph.

Ralph Cooley became one of the best dentists in Houston with a degree from the Texas Dental College. Later, as a board member, he was instrumental in the 1943 transition of the Texas Dental College to The University of Texas Dental Branch, renamed in recent years The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry.

Ralph Cooley and his wife, Mary, raised two sons, Ralph and his younger brother, Denton, at their home at 980 W. Alabama St. Denton Cooley was born at Houston’s Baptist Hospital on Aug. 22, 1920, and Dr. Ernst Bertner delivered him into this world. Two decades later, Bertner became instrumental in the birth of our Texas Medical Center guiding Monroe Dunaway Anderson’s foundation trustees as they converted the forest behind Hermann Hospital into the Texas Medical Center in the immediate years preceding World War II.

Tall at 6 feet 4 inches, handsome and gifted with an exceptional intellect and hand-to-eye coordination, Denton Cooley attended San Jacinto High School and excelled in the classroom and on the basketball court. At UT Austin, he would impress everyone around him, from his Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers to his basketball coach, Jack Gray, as he was a standout in the classroom as well as the university’s impressive Gregory Gym where more than 4,000 cheering basketball fans gathered to cheer their Longhorns.

Cooley in the operating room, 1960s

Cooley in the operating room, 1960s

While his father had hopes for Denton Cooley to follow him into dentistry, medicine called. His acceptance at UTMB in 1941 was followed by a move two years later to Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore where he discovered surgery, earned his medical degree and never looked back. At Johns Hopkins, Cooley impressed and worked alongside Dr. Alfred Blalock whose historic “blue baby” (tetralogy of fallot) operation on Nov. 29, 1944 is considered the dawn of modern heart surgery. Seeing in Cooley a special talent and quest for perfection, Blalock made him his cardiac resident–a prestigious position that would forever mark Cooley as a talented and skilled heart surgeon forged in the “Blalock school of surgery.”

Serving the army

In 1946 as an Army surgeon arriving in Linz, Austria, 1st Lt. Cooley found himself outranked by the other surgeons. In short order, the Army, also recognizing talent, sent the higher-ranked officers home and appointed Cooley chief of surgery. After his war duties, he returned to Johns Hopkins to complete his residency. He fell in love with Louise Goldsborough Thomas, head nurse on the Halsted 5 surgical floor. They married in 1949 and today have five daughters along with 16 grandchildren. UTHealth proudly calls Susan Cooley, the second of the five daughters, one of our own as she was a faculty member for many years in our Medical School’s pediatrics department training nurse practitioners before she retired in 2007.

Cooley in the operating room, 1970s

Cooley in the operating room, 1970s

In the early summer of 1951, Cooley returned to Houston and the fledgling Texas Medical Center where he joined Baylor’s chairman of surgery, Michael DeBakey. The two would become international forces in all matters of the heart from teaching the next generation of heart surgeons to pioneering cardiovascular surgery through groundbreaking research and care of thousands of heart patients. Cooley’s own book “100,000 Hearts” (Johns Hopkins Press, 2012), traces Cooley’s numerous breakthroughs from innovative grafts for repairing ruptured aneurysm, to trendsetting Cooley-inspired innovations to the DeWall-Lillehei heart-lung machine that allowed Cooley and others for the first time in Houston to operate inside the heart by stopping the heart with blood bypass capabilities.

Cooley, with his precision and speed, was able to accomplish procedures and outcomes few in the world could match. He became an international pioneer in his field with the 100,000 hearts he operated on, including many firsts in the nation.

In the decade of the 1960s, Cooley and his team performed surgical procedures of historic levels on newborn infants born with critical heart defects, performed the first successful heart transplant in the U.S., and inserted a total artificial heart to prolong the life of a dying patient.

Denton A. Cooley Building (foreground) with Texas Heart Institute

Denton A. Cooley Building (foreground) with
Texas Heart Institute

The Texas Heart Institute’s website notes since Cooley founded the institute in 1962, he and the surgical staff have performed 118,800 open heart operations, 258,000 cardiac catheterizations and 1,270 heart transplants – experience no other facility in the world can match. After he retired in 2008, the reins of the Texas Heart Institute were turned over to his former Baylor College of Medicine student and our former UTHealth president, Dr. James T. Willerson, who is himself an internationally recognized cardiologist who continues the tradition of patient care, research, and teaching that Cooley always insisted was the hallmark of his institute.

A personal reflection

In the early 1980s, I had the opportunity to write for Cooley as the senior writer at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, Texas Children’s Hospital and the Texas Heart Institute, all under one administration then. No writing assignment was more treasured than to write a press release, editorial or feature story for Denton Cooley. I know how important the word “institute” is to him as that was one editorial I worked on with him so many years ago. He challenged me to collect the stories behind the history of his heart institute and shared his vision and stories with me. I visited with his former patients and friends, including Leopold Meyer, who told me their stories and connected their dots to our Texas Medical Center history.

LIFE Magazine September 1981

Life Magazine, September 1981

Meanwhile, Cooley and his team had renewed work with heart transplants and artificial hearts thanks to cyclosporine A, a drug that was showing much promise even with rejection issues that had plagued earlier work in the late 1960s. Sitting in the Texas Heart Institute surgical dome writing press releases while watching one of the world’s greatest heart surgeons in his prime was breathtaking. International media filled the halls outside the operating rooms and he made headlines around the world, including a Life magazine cover story in September 1981 on his implantation of the world’s second total artificial heart in a human. I was fortunate to witness the historic event and my timelines and briefs provided to international reporters appeared with their coverage in print and on and television screens worldwide.

Grabbing quotes from Cooley on the go was always a challenge. In his office there were three television monitors mounted from the ceiling that he eyed more carefully than me as we compared notes on the writing project of the moment. Every few minutes he would excuse himself as he saw on one of the monitors a need for his presence. I never could figure out if there was a secret cue that told him he was needed but then again, he knew his way around hearts and never missed a beat. Minutes later I could see him on the monitor in his office gowned and gloved and stepping in to take over or simply instruct. Back minutes later, I’d capture a few more quotes for our article before he rushed away again as the next monitor beckoned. Such was the excitement and highly organized commotion of working with one of the busiest heart surgeons in the world.

To this day Denton Cooley takes the time to thank his mentors. Ask him about the influence of Alfred Blalock or the great British cardiac surgeon, Russell Brock, whom he spent a year with before arriving in the Texas Medical Center. Both Blalock and Brock credited him as among their esteemed peers, and Cooley emphasizes in his memoirs that their public praises gave him the confidence to push forward and strive to reach higher.

Cooley at Boutwell's book signing event, March 27, 2014

Cooley at Boutwell's book signing event, March 27, 2014

At my own book-signing for the recently released biography of John P. McGovern, one of the first to arrive that evening was Denton Cooley and his wife, Louise, joined by their daughter Susan. His praise and support that night gave me renewed confidence to do more and try harder. Over the years, thousands of surgeons and allied health professionals alike on a global scale have looked to him as a role model for excellence. His confidence and words of support have guided many a career to higher trajectories than otherwise might have been, mine included.

Today his archives are housed in our Texas Medical Center archives along with the papers of so many great names who have built the medical center. UTHealth’s 14,000-square-foot Cooley Center, which was named in honor of both father and son, adjacent to our School of Dentistry on the South Campus, represents a constant reminder of Cooley’s appreciation and confidence in our UTHealth family of schools. He is a proud Houstonian and Texas Longhorn in addition to being an international force in all circles medical. Yes, 1891 was a very good year for health care and this city. Thank goodness his grandfather, Daniel Denton Cooley, left Nebraska for Houston. The rest is history.

Bryant Boutwell

‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.

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