Denton Cooley, an American heart surgeon renowned for his pioneering contributions to cardiovascular medicine, is best known for implanting the first artificial heart in a human patient. This groundbreaking procedure occurred on April 4, 1969, at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Texas, a facility that Cooley himself founded.
The patient was Haskell Karp, a 47-year-old man from Illinois who was suffering from severe heart failure. The artificial heart, called the Liotta-Cooley heart, was a mechanical device that was intended to function as a temporary substitute until a human donor heart could be located. This device was named after Cooley and its developer, Domingo Liotta, an Argentine heart surgeon.
The artificial heart was a pneumatic device, made of polyester known as Dacron, and its design was based on the anatomy of a human heart. It had two pumping chambers (ventricles) and was powered externally through tubes that exited the body and connected to an air compressor.
Dr. Cooley’s team implanted this artificial heart in a surgery that lasted approximately 65 hours. The artificial heart functioned effectively in Mr. Karp’s body for approximately 64 hours, after which a human heart became available for transplant. Unfortunately, despite the initial success of the artificial heart and the subsequent heart transplant, Haskell Karp passed away a day and a half after the transplant surgery due to complications.
While the procedure was a milestone in cardiovascular medicine, it also stirred significant controversy, particularly due to issues related to medical ethics and informed consent. Dr. Cooley had proceeded with the implantation without the approval of the hospital’s review board or the device manufacturer.
Despite the controversies, Denton Cooley’s groundbreaking work led to significant advancements in the development and application of heart assist devices, which are now routinely used to bridge patients to transplantation or as long-term therapy for patients with end-stage heart disease. It also sparked further research into fully implantable artificial hearts, which could potentially provide a permanent solution for heart failure patients.