Born to Lebanese-American Christians in 1908, Michael DeBakey grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His parents were loving, generous people who instilled in him the importance of helping the underprivileged and giving back to his community. He accompanied his parents every Sunday to a local orphanage, where they delivered clothing and food to local children.
DeBakey received his bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees from Tulane University in New Orleans. In 1937, he joined the faculty of Tulane University School of Medicine. Later, he volunteered for military service during World War II, becoming director of the Surgical Consultants’ Division in the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Office. During that time, he developed the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH units, which saved thousands of lives during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
In 1948, DeBakey was appointed chairman of the surgery department at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, which later bared his name. He served as president and chancellor there from 1979 to 1996. In 1969, Baylor College of Medicine separated from Baylor University under DeBakey’s direction. He also founded and became the longtime director of the DeBakey Heart Center at Houston’s Texas Medical Center.
Best known for his trailblazing efforts in treating cardiovascular diseases, DeBakey was a pioneer in the development of the artificial heart. In 1963, he performed the first successful implantation of an artificial cardiac assistor in a patient. DeBakey also performed the first successful coronary artery bypass in 1956. Early in his career, working with Dr. Alton Ochsner, he linked smoking to lung cancer.
A lifelong scholar, DeBakey led the movement to establish the National Library of Medicine as the world’s medical library of record. DeBakey’s writings include the New York Times bestseller, The Living Heart, as well as The New Living Heart Diet.
DeBakey was internationally recognized as an ingenious medical inventor and innovator, a gifted and dedicated medical educator, the premier surgeon of all time, and an international medical statesman. He also served as an adviser to many U.S. presidents.
In appreciation of his work, the trustees of Baylor College of Medicine established the Michael E. DeBakey Center for Biomedical Education and Research and the Michael E. DeBakey Surgery Professorship. In 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson conferred on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction, the highest American civilian award. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science. His many other prestigious honors include the Albert and Mary Lasker Clinical Award in 1963 and the Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000.
Looking back over his career, DeBakey said, “My life and work have been guided largely by my parents instilling in me integrity, reverence for life, and compassion for suffering humanity. Proud of his Horatio Alger Award, DeBakey once offered this advice: “Always strive for excellence, and try to turn all adversities into successes.”