Dr. Michael DeBakey, Medical Trailblazer and Longtime Friend of NLM, Dies at 99

Dr. Michael DeBakey, who died Friday, July 11th of natural causes, was one of the 20th century's great pioneers of cardiovascular surgery. He was the chancellor emeritus of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, director of The Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center, and senior attending surgeon of The Methodist Hospital in Houston.

What many may not know about this celebrated figure (whom medical historian Dr. Sherwin Nuland has said was, "without question, the greatest surgeon of all time") was that he was also one of National Library of Medicine's most stalwart supporters. DeBakey played a pivotal role in the creation of the Library in the 1950s and in the establishment of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine in the 1960s. A visionary member and chair of the NLM Board of Regents and several other NLM advisory panels, the surgeon, innovator, medical educator and medical statesman made countless contributions to the Library.

NLM Director Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, quoted in The Houston Chronicle, July 13, 2008, observed, "It's an overused phrase, but Dr. DeBakey was truly a Renaissance man of medicine. He knew how to ask the most basic, common-sensical questions that got to the heart of a matter, and he saw the whole picture." "The heart of the matter" is the perfect choice of words.

One of only a handful of surgeons to become well-known to an international audience, DeBakey performed more than 60,000 operations, and routine procedures such as bypass surgery owe much to his example. He also invented and improved a series of devices now routinely used in the treatment of heart patients. These included artificial hearts, heart pumps to assist those waiting for transplants, and more than 50 instruments, including the DeBakey clamps and the DeBakey forceps used by vascular surgeons around the world. But the Dacron graft, used to treat diseased arteries, remains his greatest innovation, according to medical historians. These grafts are used to repair aneurysms, or ballooning, in all parts of the aorta and are now part of standard treatment.

This inventor and innovator earned a reputation as the greatest surgeon alive when he was just 35, but his curiosity and considerable skills had him making important contributions to medicine well into the 21st century. As his reputation grew, so did the list of famous people who sought his advice and services. Among them were the Duke of Windsor, the Shah of Iran, King Hussein of Jordan, Boris Yeltsin, and Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

Michael Ellis DeBakey (originally "Debaghi," but later Anglicized) was born September 7, 1908, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. One of five children of Lebanese immigrants, he attributed his surgical skills to his mother, who had taught him to sew and knit. He earned a science degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and, in 1932, received an MD degree from the Tulane University School of Medicine. From 1935 to 1937, DeBakey studied in Europe, at Strasbourg and Heidelberg universities, before returning to Tulane to teach surgery.

Late in life, he recalled that, in 1932, the year the finished medical school, "there was virtually nothing you could do for heart disease. If a patient came in with a heart attack, it was up to God." This was unacceptable to the creative young surgeon and, that same year, he developed a roller pump that would become an important component of heart-lung machines used in open heart surgery, fulfilling the function of the heart by supplying oxygenated blood to the brain.

That extraordinary gift for innovation (often against the prevailing medical wisdom of the day) was to become characteristic of Dr. DeBakey's career. He was among the first to recognize the importance of blood banks and transfusions, and to publicize a link between smoking and lung cancer. He also developed the mobile army surgical hospital or MASH unit, created a follow-up system for veterans' health problems which evolved into the Veterans Affairs hospital system, and chartered the National Library of Medicine.

A chronology of Dr. DeBakey's involvement with NLM and its antecedents follows:

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Last reviewed: 07 August 2008
Last updated: 07 August 2008
First published: 16 July 2008
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