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Michael E. DeBakey Archives 1903-2010
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Biographical Note

Michael Ellis DeBakey (1908-2008), surgeon, inventor, and international medical statesman, made significant contributions to cardiovascular medicine throughout his long career at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Michael DeBakey was born on September 7, 1908 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Lebanese-Christian immigrants Shaker Morris and Reheeja Debaghi (the family name was Anglicized some time after their son's birth). He credited his parents with fostering his intellectual curiosity and humanitarian inclinations at a young age. It was the discussions he overheard among the physicians who came to his father's pharmacies that inspired DeBakey to become a doctor. He made his first surgical incision at age seven during a duck hunting trip with his father; he first learned the sewing skills he applied in over 60,000 surgeries from his mother.

DeBakey's formal medical education began in New Orleans, Louisiana. By 1935, he had earned his bachelor's in science, medical doctorate, and masters in science degrees from Tulane University and completed an internship at Charity Hospital. He developed an interest in the physiology of circulation while at Tulane, inventing a roller pump that later became a major component of the heart-lung machine, a device that supplies oxygenated blood to the brain while the heart and lungs are stopped during surgery. This breakthrough helped make open-heart surgeries possible. For two years after graduation, DeBakey continued his training in vascular surgery abroad - first under René Leriche at the University of Strasbourg in France, then under Professor Martin Kirschner at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He returned to Tulane University in 1937 to teach full-time in its surgery department while continuing clinical and experimental work on vascular conditions. He also worked with his mentor Alton Ochsner on researching the link between smoking and lung cancer. The results of their research were published in 1939, twenty-five years before the U.S. Surgeon General documented the connection.

While on leave to the United States Army during World War II, DeBakey served with the Surgical Consultants Division in the office of the U.S. Surgeon General from 1942 to 1946. In this capacity he spent time in the European Theater of Operations on temporary duty assignments, investigated and reported upon wounds of the chest and vascular system, and helped formulate policy for the U.S. Surgeon General. His proposal that surgical teams be moved from field hospitals to the front lines led to the development of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units. He also helped establish the Veterans Administration Medical Center System, which offered specialized treatments for wounded military personnel returning stateside for rehabilitation. Another of his proposals was a systemized follow-up program for war veterans with certain medical ailments; this eventually became the Veterans Administration's Medical Research Program. In 1945, Colonel DeBakey was awarded the Legion of Merit in recognition of his wartime achievements.

In 1948, DeBakey left Louisiana for Texas to join the Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston as a professor and chairman of the department of surgery. He soon learned that the department was on academic probation with a depleted budget; it was up to him to recruit full-time faculty members, develop an approved residency training program and undergraduate surgical curriculum, and establish the experimental laboratories necessary to salvage the department. The situation at Baylor began to turn around after DeBakey agreed to help transfer the local Navy hospital to the Veterans Administration. Establishing the new veteran's hospital as Baylor's first official hospital affiliate allowed DeBakey to create a surgical residency program. DeBakey remained with Baylor for the rest of his career, recruiting and training many prominent surgeons who went on to play key roles in his successes. In 1969, he initiated the college's separation from the university and became President of the newly formed Baylor College of Medicine (BCM). He became Chancellor of BCM in 1979 and Chancellor Emeritus in 1996.

Cardiovascular disease was DeBakey's main interest by the 1950s; this was what he, his students, and his colleagues first focused on in the surgical laboratories he established at the college. Lessons learned from animal research were applied in clinical operations performed on patients at affiliated institutions such as Methodist Hospital. DeBakey perfected a series of surgical techniques for treating all forms of aortic aneurysms and applied them, in conjunction with endarterectomy and bypass procedures, to the treatment of occlusive diseases of major arteries, in particular those of atherosclerotic origin. His research and experience led him to develop his fundamental concept of therapy in arterial disease. In 1963, DeBakey received the Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award for his numerous contributions to cardiovascular surgery.

Early in the 1950s, DeBakey began testing synthetic materials for one with the durability to function as a long term vascular graft for replacing diseased arteries. He accidentally found the perfect material - Dacron - at a dry goods store that was out of another material he wanted. DeBakey sewed the first Dacron aortic graft on his wife's sewing machine in 1953; subsequent grafts were manufactured on a special knitting machine designed at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. The development of Dacron artificial arteries and Dacron-velour arteries allowed surgeons to repair previously inoperable aortic aneurysms in the chest and abdomen. These grafts are still in use throughout the world in surgical treatments of diseased arteries.

On May 2, 1965, DeBakey performed what is believed to be the world's first practice of telemedicine. An open-heart surgery to remove and replace a defective aortic valve was broadcast via the Early Bird intercontinental communications satellite from Houston to the amphitheatre of the Cantonal Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland. While operating, DeBakey explained the procedure in both English and French to the audience in Switzerland, which included representatives of the Geneva University Medical Faculty and the World Health Organization. Another medical first took place in 1968 when DeBakey and his surgical team transplanted the heart, kidneys, and one lung from a single donor into four different patients. However, the issue of transplant recipients rejecting donor organs proved difficult to overcome, causing the transplant program to be suspended from early 1970 until 1984.

Research efforts into developing circulatory assist devices and artificial hearts began to take off at BCM in the 1960s. On August 8, 1966, DeBakey successfully implanted a left ventricular bypass pump in a patient suffering from severe aortic and mitral valvular disease. The pump augmented the left ventricle's natural function for ten days while the patient recovered from the valve replacement surgery. By contrast, DeBakey's prototypes for permanent mechanical heart replacements did not advance beyond animal experimentation. When Denton A. Cooley, a former DeBakey protégé and colleague working at the BCM-affiliated St. Luke's Hospital, acquired and implanted one of these prototypes in a human patient who subsequently died, DeBakey accused Cooley of acting unethically. The two surgeons parted ways after the incident and did not formally reconcile until DeBakey received the lifetime achievement award from the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Society in 2007. In the meantime, DeBakey continued researching ways to eliminate complications generated by total artificial hearts. One result from this research was an axial flow ventricular assist device developed in collaboration with the National Aeronautic and Space Administration in the 1990s.

By the 1980s, DeBakey was conducting research on different potential causes of arterial and heart diseases. In 1983, DeBakey, Joseph Melnick, and others reported that cytomegalovirus (CMV) was present in the cells of eleven patients with atherosclerosis. This study theorized that CMV, a common virus which lays dormant for years, could initiate lesions early in a patient's life that would cause atherosclerosis later on. A second report in 1987 supported the first, that patients with heart disease possessed higher-than-normal levels of CMV antibodies. That same year DeBakey reported that cholesterol levels, smoking, high-fat diets, and high blood pressure do not in themselves cause atherosclerosis or other heart diseases.

DeBakey's achievements in cardiovascular medicine brought him substantial publicity and international acclaim. He is the recipient of more than fifty honorary degrees and countless awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Lyndon Johnson in 1969, the National Medal of Science awarded by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, and the Congressional Gold Medal awarded in 2008. DeBakey's public prominence and reputation made him a highly-sought consultant. DeBakey advised most of the U.S. presidents elected during the second half of the twentieth century and spent a substantial amount of time on national health advisory committees. His work on the Medical Task Force of the Hoover Commission led to the establishment of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. His proposals and testimonies in favor of establishing regional cardiovascular research centers helped BCM receive a grant in 1974 to establish the first of fifteen proposed National Heart and Blood Vessel Research and Demonstration Centers (DeBakey served as the center's director from 1976 to 1984). DeBakey also served as a medical advisor to numerous heads-of-state throughout the world, helping to establish health-care systems and cardiovascular surgery programs in countries such as England, Belgium, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Thailand, Japan, and New Zealand. He maintained friendly ties with the Soviet medical community throughout the Cold War and was called upon to approve President Boris N. Yeltsin for coronary bypass surgery in 1996. DeBakey himself operated on a great many celebrities and prominent personages, including comedian and close friend Jerry Lewis; Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the former Shah of Iran; Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor; baseball manager Leo Durocher; and Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich.

Michael DeBakey died of natural causes on July 11, 2008. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Diana Cooper DeBakey, and their sons Ernest Ochsner and Barry Edward. His survivors include his second wife, the former Katrin Fehlhaber, their daughter Olga-Katarina, and two sons from his first marriage, Michael Maurice and Denis Alton.