On this day

The great artificial heart implant scandal

“He wanted to be able to say he was the first one to use an artificial heart in a patient”, Dr. Michael E. DeBakey eminent American heart surgeon told about his former colleague Dr. Denton A. Cooley, who was the first to conduct implantation of a total artificial heart by means of the half-pound (250 g) device taken unauthorized from DeBakey’s lab. As the case that planted the seeds of the several-decade-long discord between the two heart surgeons shows, science is not always the terrain of scientists’ unselfish cooperation destined for achieving lofty aims.

With the assistance of Dr. Domingo Liotta, Dr. Cooley carried out the pioneering operation at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston on April 4, 1969. The pneumatic-powered apparatus, which was implanted in the 47-year-old Haskell Karp’s chest, operated for nearly 65 hours fulfilling its task when it was changed to a donor heart of a 40-year-old woman. Sadly, the transplanted organ could not keep alive Karp, who died more than 30 hours after the surgery.


The primary source of the conflict between the two heart surgeons was Dr. Cooley’s guerilla action. Originally the operation was expected to be performed on April 4, but it was delayed to April 7 because of DeBakey’s busy schedule. Despite this, Cooley implemented the historic operation in the absence of his colleague without his permission.

The American College of Surgeons condemned the surgeon for violating medical etiquette and launched an inquiry against him. Dr. DeBakey considered his former colleague’s act as treason, calling it “a little childish” effort. Dr. Cooley rejected the accusations saying the operation performed earlier than planned was a matter of life or death for his patient.

The feud was so severe that even American President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac issued a joint announcement declaring the surgeons co-discoverers. Finally, in 2007, after nearly four decades of strife, the 87-year-old Dr. Cooley and the 99-year-old Dr. DeBakey were finally reconciled.

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