On the ninth anniversary of his passing, the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) remembers the extraordinary life and career of Michael E. DeBakey, MD (September 7, 1908—July 11, 2008).
A cardiac surgeon, inventor, educator and medical statesman whose contributions are credited with revolutionizing medicine, Dr. DeBakey left an indelible mark on the healthcare landscape. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969, and the National Medal of Science from Ronald Reagan in 1987. Among his many leadership positions, he also served as director of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which proudly honors exceptional clinical scientists each year with the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. (Photo of DeBakey with Mary Lasker featured at top.) “Dr. DeBakey’s many inventions and innovations have led to pioneering treatments and innovative surgical techniques used in operating rooms around the country every day,” said FBR Past President Frankie L. Trull.
He also selflessly served as chair of the Foundation for Biomedical Research’s Board of Directors for 25 years, working closely with FBR to advance his lifelong commitment to the humane and responsible use of research with animals to pioneer groundbreaking achievements in science and medicine. From bench to bedside to boardroom, he modeled courage, virtuosity, and leadership to all who had the privilege of calling him a friend and mentor.
“Many consider Michael E. DeBakey to be the greatest surgeon ever”—Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005
Dr. DeBakey’s career spanned more than 70 years, and by the time he stopped performing surgeries at age 90, he counted world leaders, celebrated actors, and three United States presidents among his 60,000+ patients. In the process, he trained thousands of surgeons—many of whom currently helm leading hospitals and medical schools. Many DeBakey procedures to this day are performed in cardiac surgeries around the world.
An inventor who is credited with scores of medical procedures and instruments, including some that paved the way for open heart surgery and the creation of the artificial heart, Dr. DeBakey is known also for his surgical “firsts:” the replacement of an arterial aneurysm; the use of the Dacron graft to clear a blocked artery; and the partial artificial heart transplant. He spent two years sewing the first Dacron grafts and testing them in dogs before successfully conducting the procedure in a person. In the late 1950s, while still in medical school, Dr. DeBakey invented the first heart/lung roller pump to assist the beating of damaged hearts. In 1963, he completed the first successful coronary bypass surgery, using the large vein in the leg to bypass the blocked or damaged areas between the aorta and coronary arteries.
Many of Dr. DeBakey’s contributions to the field of medicine happened outside the operating room. In 1939, with Dr. Alton Ochsner, Dr. DeBakey discovered one of the first links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. And during World War II, he recognized the need to bring doctors to the battlefields and helped to create early versions of what became the mobile army surgical hospital (MASH unit).
Dr. DeBakey, both directly and though instruments and procedures that were invented or refined by him, saved millions of peoples’ lives. FBR shares his firm belief in the cruciality of biomedical research in the development of lifesaving medical advances, and the necessity of animal models in responsibly conducted biomedical research.
“Animal research is done with great care and is done with special concern for the ethical treatment of the animals,” said Dr. DeBakey. Thanks in large part to his work, cardiovascular medicine was transformed by a series of innovations that first seemed impossible—but were perfected in studies with animals and thereafter became standard treatments for diseases and conditions that were once invariably fatal.
Would anyone desire a world in which cardiovascular disease and heart attacks are medical mysteries that spell certain death—a world without the research with animals that has allowed such tremendous scientific and medical progress? Dr. DeBakey was perhaps confronted with this ethical question when he said that society must decide whether “the rights of animals supercede a patient’s right to relief from suffering and premature death.” He concluded, “Let us hope that they reach a decision that is based on facts, reason, and good will.”
“It is in this spirit, and with a commitment to lifesaving progress in science and medicine, that FBR is dedicated to advancing the values of Dr. Michael E. DeBakey,” said FBR President Matthew R. Bailey. ”Today, we remember and honor his legacy, as we say ‘thank you.’”