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Dr. Michael E. DeBakey was one of the most influential and innovative heart doctors in the United States. The man whom the Journal of the American Medical Association once called “the greatest surgeon ever” lived to be 99 years old. In that time, he served his country, saved tens of thousands of lives (including his own), and completely revolutionized the way surgeons work on the human heart.

While a surgeon in World War II, he urged that doctors be moved from hospitals to the front, where medics were usually the only aid available. He created what would become known in the Korean War as the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (or “MASH”) unit. The Army awarded him the Legion of Merit for this innovation.

Dr. Michael E. DeBakey

Dr. Michael E. DeBakey

DeBakey developed medical programs to care for returning veterans. President Truman asked him to transfer the Houston Navy Hospital to the VA. That hospital, still named after DeBakey, was Baylor University’s first affiliate and first surgical residency program.

The doctor invented many heart-related surgical devices, including the roller pump, which he invented while still in medical school. That pump became the centerpiece of the heart-lung machine, which takes over the functions of the heart and lungs during surgery by supplying oxygenated blood to the brain. Dr. DeBakey’s other surgical innovations, like grafting, bypasses, and the use of mechanical assistance devices are now common practice.

He also was the first to make the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. The idea that inhaling smoke may hurt one’s lungs may seem like an obvious one to us today, when DeBakey and Dr. Alton Ochsner made the connection in 1939, their work was ridiculed by the medical community. The Surgeon General officially documented it in 1964.

Conventional practitioners also ridiculed DeBakey’s idea about using Dacron (polyester) grafts to repair damaged arteries, a procedure that was used to save his life in 2006 when he had a torn aorta.

In 1969, President Johnson awarded Dr. DeBakey the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given a United States citizen. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science. In 2008, he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony attended by President Bush. He died in 2008 and was granted ground burial in Arlington National Cemetery by the Secretary of the Army.

Dr. Michael E. DeBakey was the heart surgeon for the last Shah of Iran, of King Edward VIII of England, Marlene Dietrich, Joe Louis, and Presidents Johnson and Nixon. More than that, he was the surgeon who cared about saving the lives of regular troops. In combat he reformed the way the Army manages casualty care, and as a civilian he reformed the way America takes care of its Veterans.

About the author: This article was written by Blake Stilwell and was originally published on

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Published on Apr. 7, 2016

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  1. Raymond Hall April 16, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    I have a friend that worked at a va hospital and she use to talk about how much he did for vets. I never met the man, I am a Vietnam era Veteran, I had a heart transplant June 2000, one of the devices he is credited for inventing helped me both as I waited for the heart transplant, and what was used during the transplant. What a wonderful article.

  2. Marlyn Karrow April 10, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    I first met him in 1956 when I was a student nurse at Seattle University. He had been called by the Sisters at Providence Hospital on behalf of a WWII vet with an abdominal aortic aneurysm. No physician west of the Mississippi wanted to treat that patient but Dr DeBakey came with his scrub nurse ready for surgery. We student nurses drew straws for the job of assisting his nurse. I got the job. I remember the surgery gallery packed with interns and residents. Those in the back row brought step ladders in order to see over the heads of those in front.
    I graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Nursing in 1962, married a Korean vet, served at Fort Lawton Army Hospital as a civil service nurse and was on duty when President Kennedy was shot. I later was part of a team of nurses to open the first Coronary Care Unit at US Public Health Service Hospital, Seattle.
    Since then my husband has had his own aortic aneurysm repaired. Thanks for the memories.

  3. Ernest Di Nardo April 8, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    My wife flew to Australia 1968 or so ,and in their conversation asking “what do you do ?” he replied he was a Surgeon ” my wife asked ” What do you mean WAS”” HE then showed her his hands which were disfigured with Arthritis. She asked his name and he said Dr. Debakey . Well in 1980 she had bypass surgery by Dr. Crawford who was the understudy of Dr. Debakey and Dr. Coley . Now this Feb.4, 2016 I had bypass and a Aortic valve replacement by Dr. Offenbach at Morton Mease Hospital . the surgery today is so much more advanced , I have been driving , going to Rehab . I’m able to take walks !! I personally thank Dr,. Debakey , Dr. Coley for their doing the first surgery !! I personally want to thank Dr. Ofenloch who did the surgery on me !! And all the Doctors and Nurses at Morton Mease Hospital who made my stay there great !! Ernest Di Nardo

  4. Kim McKee-Weimer April 8, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    He was present at my Dad’s quadruple bypass Houston Methodist Baylor college of Medicine. My Dad was 35 & muscular, otherwise very healthy. Many yrs later Dad was diagnosed 100% service connected small cell carcinoma due to his exposure to Agent Orange and other dioxins 1964-66, Vietnam -Army Sgt E5. Dr DeBakey was interested in my Dad’s surgery when he discovered how young Daddy was when the quad bypass was needed. Aftet reading this article it probably also something to do with his status of being a vet, too. My brother & I used to ride the elevators up & down with tje doctor’s son. I think he was a teenager at the time. We were very young.

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