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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:

  • In the 1940s, during World War II, Dr. DeBakey spent many hours in the Army Medical Library, located on Independence Avenue, on the National Mall. Researching military medical matters required by his duties in the Army Surgeon General's Office, he was dismayed by the deplorable physical conditions: the lighting was bad, the roof leaked, etc. He was especially concerned about the deterioration of the collection.
  • After the war, it became clear that, if the collection was to get the attention it deserved, the library should be transferred from the military to the civilian sphere. "From the point of view of the military command," Dr. DeBakey noted, "the library had minuscule significance by comparison with a tank, battleship, or airplane."
  • In the decade following the war, Michael DeBakey was involved with a number of Congressional committees, task forces, and, most notably, the Second Hoover Commission. He was persuasive with influential advisors and worked with Senators Lister Hill and John F. Kennedy. Eventually, in 1956, the Congress created the National Library of Medicine by transferring the Armed Forces Medical Library into the Department of Health Education and Welfare. Before this could happen, however, DeBakey had to pull some strings.
  • Dr. DeBakey thought the library should be near government researchers in Bethesda, but James A. Shannon, the NIH director at the time, did not agree. Dr. DeBakey convinced him otherwise by asking Dr. Shannon how he started his pioneering kidney research at New York University. By reading in the library, Dr. Shannon replied.
  • That wasn't the end of the story. The American Medical Association wanted the library built next to its headquarters in Chicago. With little public interest in the issue, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas held up the bill backing the Bethesda site, which was sponsored by Senator Lister Hill of Alabama. (NLM's research and development facility, the Lister Hill Center, NIH Building 38A, now bears his name.) In a strategic masterstroke, Dr. DeBakey contacted the secretary of the national Democratic Party, Dorothy Vredenberg. DeBakey had once operated on her husband and he called in his marker, to ask for her help. The next day, she told DeBakey that Mr. Rayburn would let the bill through.
  • Dr. DeBakey was a member (and elected chair) of the founding Board of Regents (1956).
  • He chaired President Johnson's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke. One outcome from that influential body was the passage of the Medical Library Assistance Act and the creation of a Regional Medical Library Network (1965), now known as the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.
  • High on Dr. DeBakey's list of achievements is a Houston high school he helped start in 1983 for students (mostly minorities) seeking health care careers. The school is now named for him, and NLM has worked closely with it through the years, sponsoring special programs in Texas and bringing students and teachers to the NIH campus. Using Dr. DeBakey's model, NLM has recently sponsored programs in cities, to interest high schoolers in careers in health and medicine.
  • Dr. DeBakey was a member of the original Long Range Planning Panel for Building and Organizing the Library's Collection (1986).
  • Michael DeBakey was a tireless advocate for NLM in the public press and made several Public Service Announcements (PSAs) as part of its outreach efforts to the public. In 1987, he wrote an article about the Library in Readers' Digest, which had a circulation of 16 million at the time.
  • He chaired the Outreach Long Range Planning Panel whose 1989 report (Improving Health Professionals' Access to Information) still influences NLM's public information and outreach activities.
  • Dr. DeBakey was appointed to another term on the Board of Regents, from 1994 to 1998. Again, he served a term as chair.
  • Over the years, Michael DeBakey repeatedly testified before Congress on behalf of NLM and its programs. In 1997, he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services about the potential benefits of offering free access to MEDLINE via the Web. He secured their support for NLM providing that service. In that testimony, the visionary man of medicine also recommended that the Library broaden the scope of its databases to include authoritative health information intended for the public, thus laying the foundation for MedlinePlus.
  • NLM hosted a 90th birthday party for Dr. DeBakey in 1998. Before a throng of well wishers, he was presented with a brick from the old Army Medical Library and honored with thunderous applause.

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