A cardiologist, Johnson found it “very difficult to tell someone to go home [because] I can’t do anything for you,” so he worked to figure out how to help patients whose hearts were failing. In 1960, a new operation was tried by a team in New York led by Dr. Robert Goetz: a cardiac “bypass” to restore blood flow to the heart muscle. Johnson, who lived and worked in Milwaukee, Wisc., came up with new procedures to make bypasses more effective, bypassing more than one blockage — a double, triple, or even quadruple bypass. To make the surgeries even more effective, Johnson came up with a method to stop the heart during surgery and instead produce blood flow in the body temporarily with a “heart-lung machine.”
Another Johnson innovation: hypothermia — cooling the body to slow down metabolism during surgery. Dr. Johnson himself performed more than 8,500 heart bypass operations, and taught other doctors his pioneering techniques. “He received patients who had three alternatives from other doctors who wouldn’t tackle their condition,” says Dr. Gordon Lang. “One was, ‘Go home and get your affairs in order.’ The other was, ‘Put your name on a cardiac transplant list.’ And the third was, ‘Go to Milwaukee and see Dr. Dudley Johnson.’” By 2011, cardiac bypass surgery accounted for 1.4 percent of all surgeries in the United States. Still, Johnson said surgery wasn’t the best way to treat heart disease. “The best way to prevent coronary disease is to pick your parents,” he said, but since that’s not practical, eating better, exercising more, and not smoking are more important. “Prevention is, of course, the ultimate answer.” Dr. Johnson died October 24 after suffering a stroke. He was 86.