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Michael E. DeBakey, Renowned Heart Surgeon and MDA Supporter, Dies at 99

Michael Ellis DeBakey, MD, a legendary cardiovascular surgeon whose surgical innovations transformed modern heart surgery, as well as an international medical statesman and major supporter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), died in Houston, TX, on July 11. He was 99.

Dr. DeBakey, chancellor emeritus and director of the DeBakey Heart Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, was born Sept. 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, LA, to Lebanese parents who had immigrated to the US as children. He earned his undergraduate degree and medical degrees from Tulane University in New Orleans, and completed surgical fellowships at the University of Strasbourg in France, and at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. During medical school Dr. DeBakey invented the roller pump, which would become a major component of the heart-lung machine John Gibbon, MD, developed in 1953 for open-heart surgery.

From 1937 to 1948 Dr. DeBakey served on the Tulane Medical School faculty, although during World War II he was on military leave as a member of the Surgical Consultants' Division in the Army — as its director, he helped develop the mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units that greatly improved the survival rate of wounded soldiers. He also advocated specialized medical follow-up for military veterans, which eventually became the Veterans Affairs health care system.

Dr. DeBakey joined the faculty of Baylor University College of Medicine in 1948 and presided as the surgery department's chairman until 1993. He also was president of the college from 1969 to 1979, chancellor from 1979 to 1996, and then named Chancellor Emeritus.


DR. MICHAEL E. DEBAKEY (1908–2008)


Dr. DeBakey was responsible for advances affecting both cardiovascular medicine and neurology. In 1953 he performed the first successful carotid endarterectomy — eliminating the plaque from the inner lining of the carotid artery. In the early 1950s he became the first surgeon to remove aneurysms, which had been considered fatal, and use the Dacron grafts he had developed to replace sections of the artery. This Dacron graft procedure was used on his own torn aorta in February 2006 at age 97, from which he ultimately recovered and returned to a busy traveling and writing schedule.

Dr. DeBakey is credited with performing the first coronary artery bypass surgery in 1964; the first use of a ventricular assist device to pump blood and support a heart that wouldn't start in 1966; some of the first heart transplants in the US; and the first multi-organ transplant, in which he implanted a heart, a lung, and two kidneys from one donor into four recipients in 1968. He created more than 70 surgical instruments, was among the first to record surgeries on film in the 1960s, and had performed over 50,000 cardiovascular procedures by the time he stopped a regular surgical schedule in his eighties.


Dr. DeBakey's interests included caring for those with neuromuscular diseases, and he was an active member of the MDA since 1970, when he joined the Scientific Advisory Committee. He served on the MDA Board for 20 years and then became the national vice president from 1991 to the time of his death. He was instrumental in developing the MDA program of university-based neuromuscular disease research and clinical centers in the 1970s.

Stanley H. Appel, MD, Edwards Distinguished ALS Professor and chair of neurology at the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, TX, said that Dr. DeBakey had convinced the MDA to develop a Clinical Research Center at Baylor-Methodist in 1977, and had also been influential in recruiting Dr. Appel to Houston to help establish a neuromuscular diseases center.

“Dr. DeBakey was one of my real heroes and I was truly saddened by his passing,” said Dr. Appel. “I've always been grateful to him for this unique opportunity and for helping me realize my potential.”

At the March 2008 MDA Board meeting, Dr. DeBakey spoke about the importance of translational research applying genetics and molecular biology to help patients with inherited muscular diseases. “We were all awed by his grasp of the science, and the wisdom expressed — a feat rarely matched by colleagues half his age,” Dr. Appel said.

He received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction (1969), the National Medal of Science (1987), and the Congressional Gold Medal (April 2008).

Said Dr. Appel: “We will miss him dearly, but we will always have his legacy of incredible accomplishments and wisdom as well as the joy of remembering to guide us into the future.”