The Greatest Surgeon of the 20th Century

There was a time not too long ago when heart disease, particularly a heart attack (scientifically, a "myocardial infarction"), meant certain death. Dr. Michael E. DeBakey was more responsible for reducing the mortality associated with heart disease than any other individual in history. Constantly at work, always innovating, DeBakey hadn't even graduated medical school when he invented a type of pump — the "roller pump" — that would make open-heart surgery possible.  Beside more than a thousand innovations in surgical technique, he also was responsible for the invention of over 50 surgical instruments and devices. It was he who, when presented with the problem of what's called an aortic aneurism, applied a common fabric, Dacron, for use as a patch. This was in the 1960s. At age 97, he suffered such an aneurism and his life was saved by the technique he pioneered. The operation (extremely risky for a man of that age) was performed by surgeons he himself had trained, and worked with for over twenty years. DeBakey survived and thrived another three years before dying of natural causes on July 11, 2008.

Humble Beginnings

Dr. Michael E. DeBakey was born on September 7, 1908 in Lake Charles, Louisiana to Shaker and Raheeja DeBakey; Lebanese immigrants.

Ever humble, he credited his mother with his surgical success. She taught him to sew, crochet and knit. He knew he wanted to become a doctor after spending a lot of time around doctors at the pharmacy his father owned. He attended public schools in Lake Charles.

The best lesson my mother taught me involves an orphanage we had in town. Every Sunday after church we would get in the car and drive to the orphanage. Mother would bake bread and cookies, and she would go through our clothes and give the items we’d outgrown to the children at this orphanage. One Sunday, she was putting clothes in the basket and I noticed she had put one of my favorite caps inside. I immediately protested, but she reminded me that I had a new cap. “The child that’s going to get this cap doesn’t have a parent to give him a new cap,” she said, “and you do.” She told me I ought to be glad that I could give up the cap. I never forgot that.

Immediately after completing high school, he enrolled as a pre-medical student at Tulane University. He was only age 23 when he invented the "roller pump," a device far ahead of its time. At the time of its invention, it was used to aid in blood transfusions (this being before blood banks came about). In twenty years the roller pump would become a core component of the heart-lung machine, which made open heart surgery possible. He earned his MD degree from Tulane, and stayed in New Orleans for his internship and residency at Charity Hospital, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His surgical fellowship was completed in Strasbourg, France, at the University there, and also at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

DeBakey returned to his alma mater, Tulane, where he was on the surgical faculty from 1937 until 1948. As early as 1939, along with a colleague, he postulated that cigarette smoking was directly linked to lung cancer. This preceded the United States Surgeon General's warning of the same correlation by 24 years. His teaching in New Orleans was interrupted by service to his country. He was made a member of the Surgical Consultants' Division in the Office of the Surgeon General of the United States Army, a position he kept from 1942 to 1946. In 1945 he was named the Division's director.

Are you a fan of M*A*S*H? Well, it was Dr. DeBakey who developed the mobile army surgical hospital unit. He also pushed to establish the Veterans' Administration Medical Center Research System.

He left Tulane and joined the faculty of the Baylor College of Medicine in 1948, where he served as the Chair of the Department of Surgery until 1993. At Baylor, he served in various other capacities including Chancellor from 1979 until 1996.

A Powerful Advocate for Public Health

Several sources for this article called DeBakey a "medical statesman." He worked under the Hoover administration on the medical advisory committee. He was chairman of the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke under President Johnson. His persuasive nature and tireless work were dedicated to improving national and international standards of health care.

He spent time working with the National Institutes of Health on the National Advisory Heart and Lung Council. This is just another example of his many appointments as a consultant to important organizations concerned with health care.

Always a Scholar

What advice would I give a doctor preparing for surgery? First and foremost, walk into the right operating room. After you’ve got the right room, make sure you’ve got the right patient.

Beside fellowships and memberships in the world's most distinguished medical societies, he is also widely published. Over his lifetime he published 1,300 articles, chapters, and books on subjects ranging from surgery to medical ethics and socioeconomics. His publications include best-selling books for the lay reader, including The Living Heart, The Living Heart Guide to Eating Out, and The Living Heart Shopper's Guide.

In the 1960s, he became one of the first surgeons to film surgical procedures, bringing camera and lights right into the operating room. Suffice it to say he leaves behind a colossal amount of educational material that will be used by students for many years to come.

How on earth, some may ask, could this man accomplish so much? Even into his 90s, he would arise at 5 a.m., work in his office at home for two hours, and then drive to the hospital, where he'd stay until 6 p.m. He'd continue reading or writing after dinner and stay up past midnight.

One of the rarest things that we do is think. I don’t know why people don’t do it more often. It doesn’t cost anything. Think about that.


It's estimated that in his near 75 years of involvement in medicine, Dr. DeBakey performed approximately 50,000 operations on patients from all walks of life. However, he earned the title of "name-dropper," regularly referring to the many celebrities and heads of state he'd operated on. These included the deposed Shah of Iran, Marlene Dietrich, the former King Edward VIII, Joe Louis, Leo Durocher, and Jerry Lewis. His patients included two U.S. Presidents, Johnson and Nixon. Perhaps his most famous and notorious patient was Boris Yeltsin, first President of Russia shortly after the fall of the U.S.S.R. This set an unheard-of precedent. He saved Yeltsin's life and enabled him to get re-elected to the Presidency. The Russian leader was suffering from angina but his own doctors refused to operate for a number of reasons, not the least being Yeltsin's age. DeBakey supervised the successful bypass operation on Yeltsin.

This 'n That

The tube to repair arteries was initially going to be made of nylon. The fabric store he went to was out of nylon, and suggested Dacron because it doesn't wear out. The first tube was sewn by DeBakey on his wife's sewing machine.

Okra is the key to good gumbo.

The last heart procedure he performed was when he was ninety years old. He told Esquire magazine in an interview just before his death that "The operation I did in '53 for aneurysm of the thoracic aorta gave me great satisfaction. It had never been done successfully before, and lots of doctors took the position that you shouldn't try it. You've got to push ahead in spite of them. I learned that lesson early."

Being compassionate, being concerned for your fellow man, doing everything you can to help people -- that’s the kind of religion I have, and it’s a comforting religion. I don’t get involved in discussions of intelligent design. You can’t answer those questions, so why fool with them?

Honors and Awards

The Journal of the American Medical Association said in 2005 "Many consider Michael E. DeBakey to be the greatest surgeon ever."

• Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Academy of Medical Films
• American Heart Association (AHA)
• Children Uniting Nations
• Encyclopaedia Britannica
• Foundation for Biomedical Research
• International College of Angiology
• International Health and Medical Film Festival
• Research! America
• Tulane Medical Alumni Association
• U.S. Army Legion of Merit (1945)
• American Medical Association Hektoen Gold Medal (1954 and 1970)
• Rudolph Matas Award in Vascular Surgery (1954)
• International Society of Surgery Distinguished Service Award (1958)
• Leriche Award (1959)
• American Medical Association Distinguished Service Award (1959)
• Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research (1963)
• American Medical Association Billings Gold Medal Exhibit Award (1967)
American Heart Association Gold Heart Award (1968)
• Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Academy of Sciences 50th Anniversary Jubilee Medal (1973)
• Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander-in-Chief’s Medal and Citation (1980)
• American Surgical Association Distinguished Service Award (1981)
• Academy of Surgical Research Markowitz Award (1988)
• Association of American Medical Colleges Special Recognition Award (1988)
• American Legion Distinguished Service Award (1990)
• Premio Giuseppe Corradi Award for Surgery and Scientific Research (1997)
• Russian Military Medical Academy, Boris Petrovsky International Surgeons Award and First Laureate of the Boris Petrovsky Gold Medal (1997)
• John P. McGovern Compleat Physician Award (1999)
• Russian Academy of Sciences Foreign Member (1999)
• Texas Senate and House of Representatives, Adoption of resolutions honoring Dr. DeBakey for 50 years of medical practice in Texas (1999)
American Medical Association Virtual Mentor Award (2000)
• American Philosophical Society Jonathan Rhoads Medal (2000)
• Library of Congress Bicentennial Living Legend Award (2000)
• Villanova University Mendel Medal Award (2001)
• Houston Hall of Fame (2001)
NASA Invention of the Year Award (2001)
• MUSC "Lindbergh-Carrel Prize" (2002)
• Congressional Gold Medal (April 23, 2008)



"What I've Learned: Michael DeBakey" by Cal Fussman, Esquire Magazine, July 12, 2008

Methodist Hospital System Press Release: HERE

Biography at Women's International Center 2008

Baylor College of Medicine Website Biography

Regarding his Congressional Medal of Honor

"The Man on the Table Devised the Surgery" by Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, The New York Times, December 25, 2006 HERE

The My Hero Project, "Lifesaver Hero: Dr. Michael DeBakey" by David Kemker

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