Dr. Michael DeBakey

Posted by Arab American Institute on June 17, 2015 in Blog

220px-Michael_E._DeBakey.jpegMichel E. Dabaghi was born in Louisiana in September 1908. He was the oldest of five children and was raised by his Lebanese parents Shaker and Raheeja Debaghi. Later going by Michael DeBakey, he would become one of the most prominent medical minds of the 20th century. Considered by many to be the greatest surgeon who ever lived, Dr. DeBakey credited much of his surgical success to his Lebanese mother, who taught him to sew and knit.

Dr. DeBakey was always ahead of the curve. He started his 70-year career as a student at Tulane University, where he invented the blood roller pump, an integral component to the later development of the heart-lung machine. In 1939, while still at Tulane, Dr. DeBakey and his colleague Dr. Alton Ochsner made one of the first links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. He was initially derided for his findings which would later be validated by the surgeon general in 1964.

His list of achievements on the operating table reads like a science fiction novel.  He is credited with inventing many cardiovascular surgery practices that revolutionized heart surgery and our understanding of the cardiovascular system. His work on artificial Dacron grafts allowed surgeons to repair aneurysms in the major arteries that were previously inoperable. He also pioneered the coronary artery bypass surgery, performed the first successful carotid endarterectomy, and pursued the development of artificial hearts. In fact, Dr. DeBakey was the first to use an external heart pump successfully in surgery. Nowadays, Dr. DeBakey’s medical inventions are still used to treat failing hearts.

debakeymobilearmy.jpegHe also revolutionized medical care on the battlefield, overseeing the creation of Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH (of television fame) to provide better care to soldiers on the front lines. The U.S. Army awarded him the Legion of Merit in honor of his contributions.

His list of patients included some of the 20th century’s pivotal figures—most notably the Shah Pahlavi of Iran, Boris Yeltsin of Russia, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. President Richard Nixon, the Duke of Windsor, and the former King Edward VIII of England.

DebakeyMedalceremony.jpgAside from his legendary technical skill, he achieved significant fame outside the operating room as well. Dr. DeBakey was a staunch supporter of President John F. Kennedy’s Medicare plan, which was later passed in 1965 despite pushback from the American Medical Association. He also never let politics come between him and delivering needed care. In the middle of the Cold War he became a respected physician in the Soviet Union, operating on Mstislav Keldysh, the President of the Soviet Academy of Scientists during the 1970’s. He also advised Boris Yelstin on his 1996 heart illness, a consultation which led to the surgery credited with saving Yeltsin’s presidency in 1996. The USSR even elected Dr. Debakey a foreign member of the Academy of Medical Sciences.


In 1969, President Johnson awarded Dr. DeBakey the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given a United States citizen. In 1987, President Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science. He also received the Congressional Gold Medal—Congress’s highest civilian honor—in a ceremony attended by President George H.W. Bush.

Dr. Debakey performed his last surgery at the age of 90, and had by that time performed over 60,000 operations. He spent a great deal of his later life traveling and establishing cardiovascular centers around the world. Dr. DeBakey visited Lebanon in 2005 at age 97 and spoke on new developments in cardiac surgery at the University of Balamand, where he established the Michael DeBakey Chair in Cardiovascular Sciences. A short time later,  Dr. DeBakey underwent a surgery that he himself had designed for an aortic dissection. Dr. Debakey died in 2008 at the age of 99, remembered in medicine forever as the man who rebuilt the human heart.

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.