Advertisement Close

Dr. Debakey - Father Of Cardiovascular Surgery

posted on: Apr 6, 2016

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

Michael Ellis DeBakey, a world-renowned and ingenious pioneer of modern medicine who passed away in 2008, is undoubtedly one of the most well-known Americans of Arab descent. A prodigious medical inventor, dedicated teacher, outstanding surgeon, a medical statesman and a living legend, he is internationally recognized for his pioneering work in the field of cardiovascular surgery, as well as for his imaginative research into other fields of medicine. Full of compassion and humanity, he was admired, all through his long career, by students, colleagues, and his many friends, from every walk of life.

An outstanding doctor who recast the face of medical science, especially in the field of heart disease, Dr. DeBakey established himself as one of the most respected physicians in modern medicine, as well as an internationally renowned father of cardiovascular surgery. Thanks to this renowned surgeon, Dacron arteries, arterial bypass operations, artificial hearts, heart pumps and heart transplants are common procedures in today’s medical world.

DeBakey is credited with introducing and developing scores of medical devices, techniques and procedures that have led to healthy hearts and worthwhile lives for millions across the globe. Throughout his lifetime of work, his procedures and medical inventions have basically changed the field of cardiovascular treatment and medicine. All through his career, over and over again, he created new technologies to save human lives.

A very productive philanthropic, he performed more than 60,000 operations – about a third of these heart surgeries. In the process, he trained thousands of surgeons from the four corners of the earth. From rulers of nations, princes and aristocrats to workers and paupers, they have all been his patients, treated equally with the same compassion and consideration. Among many others, some of his more famous patients were: the actress Marlene Dietrich; Boris Yeltsin, former President of Russia; Britain’s Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII); the Shah of Iran; King Hussein of Jordan; and the U.S. Presidents, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Michael DeBakey was born on September 7, 1908 in Lake Charles, Louisiana to Syrian (Lebanese) immigrants, Shaker Morris, who ran a drugstore, was a businessman, a rice farmer and a pharmacist[1], and his wife, Raheehja (Raheega[2]) DeBakey. In his 1921 application for a U.S. passport Shaker (Shiker) DeBakey listed as his birthplace ‘Jrdidt Merdgadun, Syria. Interestingly, Michael DeBakey attributed much of his surgical success to his mother who taught him how to sew, crochet and knit. On one of his weekly trips to the local library, he was upset that he could not check out the best book there. His father came to the rescue, buying the young Michael the entire set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Michael, the oldest of five children, early in life, became interested in becoming a doctor. He graduated from high school with high honours, and went on to pursue his medical degrees in the New Orleans Tulane University where, since 1937 he was a faculty member.

All through his university career, he was a bright student and showed great promise. In 1932, while still a 23-year-old medical student, he invented the roller pump for the heart-lung machine that made possible coronary bypass surgery. Afterwards, he did his residency in surgery at the University of Strasbourg, France, and at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

In 1939, he pointed out the link between smoking and lung cancer – one of the first researchers to do so. During World War II, DeBakey volunteered for military service and, in 1942, was named Director of the Surgical Consultants’ Division of the Surgeon General’s Office. During this period, his efforts led to the invention of mobile army surgical hospital units. These subsequently led to the creation of the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center System for the treatment of returning military personnel. For his medical accomplishments, in 1945, he was awarded the Legion of Merit.

Dr. DeBakey realized a formidable amount of scientific attainments. His work principally focused on the treatment of heart diseases, and he perfected several new procedures, as well as developed new technology to improve the care of heart patients. Throughout his career, he designed more than 50 surgical instruments for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

A pioneer in the development of the artificial heart, he performed the first blockage removal in the carotid artery, in 1953, and a few years later, he was the first to use patch-graft angioplasty.   In 1963, he became the first to use video and in later years the Internet to allow doctors to consult with their colleagues in other parts of the world. In 1964, he carried out his first aortocoronary bypass and two years later he performed his first implant of an artificial heart – by 1968, he had carried out 12 heart transplants. For his work, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction, the highest honour a United States citizen can receive.

His students from across the world, in 1976, founded the Michael E. DeBakey International Surgical Society. In recognition of his untiring medical efforts, the Trustees of Baylor University, where Dr. DeBakey was Chancellor of Baylor College of Medicine, established the Michael E. DeBakey Center for Biomedical Education, as well as the DeBakey Lectureship.

President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science and the Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Research, the American equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In 1993, he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honour for his unrelenting efforts in the advancement of medical science and in 1999, Dr. DeBakey received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from United Nations. To top all these honours, in 2000, the United States Library of Congress named him a ‘Living Legend’.

A lifelong scholar, Dr. DeBakey’s scholarly writings are reflected in more than 1,400 published medical articles, chapters and books on various aspects of surgery, medicine, health, medical research and medical education – many of these now considered as classics. In addition, he co-authored the best selling popular works: The Living Heart, The Living Heart Shopper’s Guide and The Living Heart Guide to Eating Out. His love of writing and books led him to organize a movement to establish the National Library of Medicine, which is now the world’s largest and most prestigious repository of medical archives.

In his mid-nineties, he was active on staff at The Methodist Hospital of Houston and worked with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to develop a self – contained, miniaturized artificial heart.

On July 11, 2008, at the age of 99 Dr. DeBakey died at the Methodist Hospital of Houston. With a career that spanned some seven decades, he earned an enviable reputation as a medical statesman extraordinaire – internationally recognized as the most famous heart surgeon in the world. For years, a symbol of hope and encouragement to millions throughout the world, he is, without doubt, a fine descendant of the civilizations of the ancient Middle East who have given mankind so many brilliant minds.


[1] It appears that previous to his working as a pharmacist, DeBakey’s father worked as a merchant in the clothing industry according to the 1910 US Census and the Lake Charles City Directories of 1913 and 1915. The 1920 US Census gives his profession as a merchant in retail dry goods.

[2] US 1910 Census and Lake Charles City Directory of 1913