DeBakey, Michael Ellis (1908–2008)

By: Rebecca Permar

Type: Biography

Published: June 7, 2021

Updated: June 7, 2021


Michael Ellis DeBakey, medical pioneer, cardiovascular surgeon, educator, and inventor, was born on September 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Lebanese-Christian immigrants Shiker Morris Dabaghi and Raheega (Zorba) Dabaghi (later anglicized to DeBakey). His father owned several drugstores and rice farms, and his mother was a seamstress. Each parent taught him many skills that would prove useful in his future career. DeBakey credited much of his surgical success to his mother who taught him to knit, crochet, and sew. At age seven, DeBakey, while on a duck hunting excursion with his father, made his first surgical incision, presumably to help field dress one of the ducks. He gained an interest in medicine while working after school in his father’s pharmacy where he met local physicians and overheard their conversations.

In New Orleans, DeBakey earned his bachelor of science degree from Tulane University in 1930 and doctor of medicine (1932) and master of science (1935) from Tulane University School of Medicine. He also played saxophone and clarinet in the Tulane University Band. In 1932 as a medical student, DeBakey invented a roller pump, which was later adapted to become an essential part of the heart-lung machine, making open-heart surgery possible. He served his surgical residency at Charity Hospital in New Orleans from 1933 to 1935 and received further training in Strasbourg, France, and Heidelberg, Germany. He married Diana Cooper in 1937; they had four sons. In 1937 he returned to Tulane on the faculty of the Department of Surgery. He expanded his surgical experience, and with his mentor Dr. Alton Ochsner, DeBakey was one of the first to observe the connection between smoking and lung cancer and published these findings as early as 1939.

During World War II Colonel DeBakey served in the Surgical Consultants Division of the U. S. Army Surgeon General’s Office. He participated in the establishment of mobile army surgical hospitals (MASH units), the United States Veterans Administration Medical Center System, and the United States Veterans Administration Medical Research Program, initiatives which dramatically changed military medical care. In 1945 DeBakey received the United States Army Legion of Merit in honor of his military accomplishments.

In 1948 DeBakey with his wife and four sons moved from New Orleans to Houston where he was named chairman of the Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine and led it to preeminence in medical education. When the Harry Truman administration requested his help to transfer the local U. S. Navy hospital to the U. S. Veterans Administration, DeBakey helped establish the new veterans facility as Baylor’s first official hospital affiliate where he created the surgical residency program. When the Baylor College of Medicine became an independent entity in 1969, DeBakey was named its president. He began service as chancellor in 1979 and chancellor emeritus in 1996. He was instrumental in transforming Baylor College of Medicine into one of the top research and educational medical institutions in the U. S.

During the 1950s DeBakey developed innovative surgical techniques that later earned him the moniker of “Father of Modern Cardiovascular Surgery.” In 1953 he was the first surgeon to successfully perform an endarterectomy for carotid and other arterial obstructive lesions. The procedures revolutionized the treatment of stroke patients and lowered cardiovascular mortality rates. In 1954 DeBakey became the first surgeon to successfully  resect and replace aneurysms of the aorta. DeBakey was the first to use Dacron for arterial reconstruction, a technique he perfected by practicing with materials using his wife’s sewing machine. In 1963 he received the prestigious Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award for his many innovations and accomplishments in cardiovascular surgery. He gained international recognition by successfully replacing an aneurysm for the British Duke of Windsor.

DeBakey performed the first coronary bypass surgery on a human patient in 1964, the year in which he became the chairman of President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. On May 2, 1965, DeBakey became a pioneer in telemedicine when he conducted open-heart surgery via satellite to colleagues in Geneva, Switzerland, and on May 28, 1965, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. He became the first surgeon to successfully implant a left ventricular bypass pump in 1966. DeBakey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.

The year 1969 also marked the beginning of a long-standing conflict between DeBakey and colleague Denton Arthur Cooley, who used an artificial heart from DeBakey’s laboratory in an emergency, implanting it into a patient without appropriate authorization from the institution. The famous feud between DeBakey and Cooley lasted almost four decades. The surgeons reconciled in 2007, when DeBakey received a lifetime achievement award from the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society.

After the death of his wife in 1972, DeBakey married Katrin Fehlhaber in 1975; they had a daughter. He established the first National Heart and Blood Vessel Research and Demonstration Center (at Baylor College of Medicine) and served as its director from 1976 to 1984. By the 1970s issues surrounding organ rejection led to the discontinuance of artificial heart transplants, and DeBakey shifted his research focus to the role of the cytomegalovirus in the development of atherosclerosis. The discovery of cyclosporine and subsequent record of organ rejection prevention enabled DeBakey to return to the field of heart transplantation in 1984.

Throughout his long career DeBakey served as medical advisor to many domestic and international heads-of-state and was a consultant regarding cardiovascular health and related surgical programs in many countries throughout the world. In Moscow, for example, he performed surgery on Mstislav Keldysh, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the U.S.S.R., and DeBakey was subsequently elected a foreign member to that academy in 1974. DeBakey served as a consultant to the medical team that conducted quintuple coronary bypass surgery on then Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1996.

In 1998 DeBakey collaborated with engineers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to improve ventricular assistance devices (VAD) resulting in the development of the so-called DeBakey VAD. This device was implanted in the first patient in the United States at Houston Methodist Hospital in 2000. Michael DeBakey further helped revolutionize the medical field through the invention of more than fifty surgical devices, among them the DeBakey clamps and DeBakey forceps.

In 2006 DeBakey underwent open heart surgery himself. His life was saved through the implementation of his own DeBakey procedure by surgeons who had trained under him.

 DeBakey was the recipient of numerous awards. These include the National Medal of Science (1987), the United Nations Lifetime Achievement Award (1999), and the Congressional Gold Medal (2008). He also received numerous honorary doctorates and published more than 1,600 articles and books. Many institutions have honored his legacy, including the DeBakey High School for Health Professions (1996), the Michael E. DeBakey Institute for Comparative Cardiovascular Science and Biomedical Devices at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (1999), the Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center (2001), the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston (2003), and the DeBakey Library and Museum of Baylor College of Medicine (2010).

Michael Ellis DeBakey died of natural causes on July 11, 2008, at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia.

“About DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center,” Houston Methodist Hospital (https://www.houstonmethodist.org/heart-vascular/about-us/), accessed October 8, 2020. Michael E. DeBakey Archives 1903–2010, Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland. DeBakey Library and Museum, Baylor College of Medicine (https://www.bcm.edu/about-us/our-campus/debakey-museum), accessed October 8, 2020. Houston Chronicle, July 13, 2008. “Legacy of Excellence: Michael E. DeBakey, M.D.,” Baylor College of Medicine, DeBakey Library and Museum (https://www.bcm.edu/about-us/our-campus/debakey-museum/legacy-of-excellence), accessed October 8, 2020. Kenneth L. Mattox, The History of Surgery in Houston: Fifty-year Anniversary of the Houston Surgical Society (Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 1998). “Michael E. DeBakey, M.D.: Father of Modern Cardiovascular Surgery,” Academy of Achievement (https://www.achievement.org/achiever/michael-e-debakey-m-d/), accessed October 8, 2020. New York Times, July 13, 2008. Craig A. Miller, A Time for All Things: The Life of Michael E. DeBakey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Categories:

  • Education
  • Educators
  • Medical
  • Health and Medicine
  • Medical Expertise
  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • Cardiologists
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Science
  • Inventors
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Academics
  • Textbook and Educational Writers

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

Places:

  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Rebecca Permar, “DeBakey, Michael Ellis,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 22, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/debakey-michael-ellis.

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June 7, 2021
June 7, 2021

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