In college, Cooley majored in zoology, but took some pre-med classes and became interested in surgery — heart surgery. He completed his training at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins, where he worked with the renowned surgeon Alfred Blalock, and assisted in the first surgery to correct Tetralogy of Fallot — a congenital heart defect better known as “Blue Baby” syndrome. In the 1950s Cooley returned to his native Houston, Texas, to practice, and came up with a new way to repair aortic aneurysms — a bulging of the major artery coming out of the heart, which often leads to sudden death. He is best known as the surgeon who first implanted a completely artificial heart into a human, a “desperate” attempt to save the patient’s life (which failed).
Cooley founded the Texas Heart Institute, which has performed more than 118,000 open heart surgeries. Once, he was testifying in a court case when the lawyer examining him asked if he thought he was the best heart surgeon in the world. Dr. Cooley answered yes. “Don’t you think that’s being rather immodest?” the lawyer taunted. “Perhaps,” Cooley responded, “but remember I’m under oath.” Indeed, “Dr. Cooley is probably the very best heart surgeon who has ever lived,” Dr. James T. Willerson, the current president of the Texas Heart Institute, said in 2014. “He has great technical skills, enormous experience, the courage to tackle these things, and wonderful judgment about what needed to be done in individual patients.” For many years, Cooley and his THI colleagues “were doing most of the heart surgery for the entire United States, in adults and children.” Dr. Cooley died November 17, at 96.