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The Michael E. DeBakey Papers

DeBakey as Medical Statesman

[Michael DeBakey and his cardiovascular team about to board a plane for Italy and Yugoslavia]. [5-21 August 1967].
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DeBakey was a life-long advocate for improved access to medical care and medical information. As the world's best-known surgeon, his advice was sought by many presidents and he served on many national committees. He advised President Kennedy on an early version of Medicare legislation, and later supported President Lyndon Johnson's efforts to enact it. In 1964, Johnson asked him to chair the Presidential Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke , whose members were to study the current data on those diseases and recommend a plan for combating them. The primary problem, it seemed to the commission members, was that biomedical knowledge about these diseases was being generated far faster than it was being translated into medical practice. The Commission's report, published later that year, recommended the establishment of a nationwide network for patient care, research, and teaching. They envisioned regional centers (established, when possible in conjunction with major existing medical institutions, including community hospitals) for heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Each center would provide a stable institutional framework for clinical and laboratory investigation, teaching and patient care. A staff of clinical and scientific specialists would coordinate a comprehensive attack on problems associated with each disease, and would have access to all necessary diagnostic, treatment, and research equipment and resources. The Regional Medical Programs proposal was opposed by many physicians, who mistakenly thought that it heralded the start of socialized medicine. It was signed into law in 1965, however, and over 50 regional programs were established by the time the Nixon administration eliminated funding for the initiative in the early 1970s. The Regional Medical Libraries program, which DeBakey included in the commission's recommendations, fared better. The 1965 Medical Library Assistance Act allowed the NLM to provide grants to improve medical library services and facilities and to create a regional medical library network to facilitate the sharing of collections. The National Network of Libraries of Medicine is currently administered by NLM and consists of eight Regional Medical Libraries, more than 150 Resource Libraries (mainly at medical schools) and over 4100 Primary Access Libraries (mainly at hospitals.)

One of DeBakey's proudest educational achievements was closer to home: the High School for the Health Professions in Houston, which he helped to establish in 1972. A partnership between Baylor College of Medicine and the Houston Independent School District, the high school attracts students to the health sciences early in their schooling and provides a focused academic foundation in the sciences. Its faculty includes medical school professors and through them students have expanded opportunities to gain experience in medical research. Since 1972 the school's enrollment has grown from 45 to over 700. In 1996, it was renamed the Michael E. DeBakey High School for the Health Professions.

As he established himself as a leading surgeon and policy advisor during his first two decades at Baylor, DeBakey also became involved in efforts to improve medical care, especially cardiovascular surgery, abroad. Earlier life experiences had helped prepare him for building bridges via medicine. As the son of Lebanese immigrants, he spoke fluent French and had studied several other languages. When he was twelve, the family spent a year traveling in Europe and the Middle East. One of the last generation of medical students who went to Europe for postgraduate training, he studied in France and Germany. Five years later, his wartime work for the Surgeon General's office took him back to Europe. As his surgical program at Baylor grew in size and reputation, patients came to him from all over the U. S. and the world, and included entertainers, politicians, and royalty. His prominent patients and their associates sometimes became his partners in extending health care across borders.

One early collaboration was with Princess Liliane of Belgium. Liliane's son Alexander had been born with coarctation of the aorta. In 1957, her Belgian physicians recommended that she take him to America to have it repaired--few surgeons in Europe had experience with that procedure. Alexander's coarctation was successfully treated by Robert Gross at Massachusetts General Hospital. Liliane became very interested in cardiovascular surgery and especially in raising the level of work done in Belgium and in helping children with congenital heart problems get the operations they needed. She consulted her friend, philanthropist Mary Lasker, for advice in setting up a foundation to support her interests; the Princess Liliane Cardiologic Foundation was founded in 1958. Lasker, in turn, introduced her to DeBakey, who had worked with her on health care advocacy here. Subsequently, he spent several weeks in Belgium, giving presentations on cardiac surgery to leading internists and surgeons, and visiting the four medical schools to do surgical demonstrations. These efforts got a lukewarm reception from older, established surgeons (echoing DeBakey's first few years in Houston) but their younger colleagues proved eager to get training in DeBakey's techniques, and the foundation soon established fellowships to fund their studies in America. Within a decade, Belgium's cardiovascular surgical programs were among the best in Europe. Meanwhile, the foundation sent Belgian children needing cardiac surgery to DeBakey in Houston.

Partly via Liliane's connections, DeBakey carried out similar initiatives in other countries, usually taking a Baylor surgical team and spending a week or two in the host country. Over the years, his group visited Chile, Yugoslavia (where he was given an award by President Tito), Egypt, Greece, Morocco, Japan, and Indonesia, among others. Pope Paul VI consulted him about improving surgical training at the University of Rome. He traveled to Maoist China several times, as well as to the Soviet Union, maintaining ties to the Soviet medical community throughout the Cold War years. In 1996, at the age of 88, he returned to Russia to supervise the quintuple coronary bypass operation performed on President Boris Yeltsin, who later called him "the magician of the heart."

DeBakey continued to travel and pursue research and other activities into his 90s. He suffered a dissecting aneurysm in 2006, which was repaired by a team of surgeons he had trained, using the techniques he pioneered. Two years later, he died at Methodist Hospital on July 11, 2008, of natural causes.