Michael DeBakey Biography

Inventor, Surgeon, Educator, Doctor (1908–2008)
Michael DeBakey was an American cardiovascular surgeon and surgical pioneer.


Michael DeBakey graduated from the Tulane University School of Medicine in 1932 and, later that year, began inventing surgical devices and the modes in which to use them. He was awarded many honors for his achievements, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction (1969) and the Presidential National Medal of Science (1987).

Early Medical Experience

Michael DeBakey received a bachelor's degree from Tulane University in 1930 and a medical degree from Tulane's School of Medicine in New Orleans two years later. That same year (1932), at age 23, he created the "roller pump," a device that provided continuous blood flow during operations. The pump would find a place in medical history, some 20 years later, as a crucial part of the heart-lung machine that made open-heart surgery a reality. 

DeBakey volunteered for service during World War II, and his work for the U.S. Surgeon General's Office sparked the development of mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units, as well as the hospital research system employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. After the war, he became a professor of surgery and chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston—where he later served as president, from 1969 to 1979; and chancellor, from 1979 to 1996.

Inventions and Breakthrough Procedures

Debakey's accomplishments read like a general list of medical breakthroughs: In 1953, he performed the first successful carotid endarterectomy as treatment for stroke, and in 1964 he accomplished the first successful coronary artery bypass, using a transplanted leg vein to reroute blood beyond blocked coronary arteries. In 1966, he performed the first successful implantation of a ventricular assist device (VAD), the procedure for which he is likely most remembered.

Years later, teaming with Robert Jarvik, DeBakey created the Jarvik artificial heart, which was first implanted in a human in 1982. And in the 1990s, working with NASA engineers, DeBakey helped develop a heart pump that was so small it could be used in children (the blood flow measurements were taken using a computer that usually modeled rocket-fluid flow).

Awards and Recognition

DeBakey received several awards over the course of his long life, including the American Medical Association Distinguished Service Award (1959), Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award (1969), Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction (1969), and  Presidential National Medal of Science (1987). He also received more than 50 honorary degrees from universities around the world, and served on the editorial boards of many medical journals.

In his work with the government, DeBakey was a member of the Hoover Commission’s  Medical Advisory Committee and chairman of the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke, under President Lyndon Johnson. Additionally, he held a three-year membership on the National Advisory Heart and Lung Council of the National Institutes of Health.

In 2006, DeBakey underwent open heart surgery—a procedure that he had pioneered some 50 years earlier—to repair a torn aorta. He died of natural causes in 2008, two months before his 100th birthday.

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