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Few will deny that the order and beauty of life and the universe denote some deep meaning, however mysterious, perhaps never to be grasped by the human mind. Those are neither the words of a priest, minister or rabbi. They are the words of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the preeminent surgeon of our times. Dr. DeBakey, welcome home to Louisiana. It's good to be back. Doctor, as a writer, I must ask you this question: Does the human heart have any mysterious properties or is it just an organ? And I hope you won't disillusion me. Well, it has in certain respects. We don't still understand all aspects of how it works. So, in that regard, it has mysterious qualities. Well, you know, we speak about certain, certain qualities of the soul, really, the mind that are in the heart
and we associate the heart with those very good qualities that we like to have. I think that's largely and basically because it's so vital. Without the heart, really, you don't have life. It's so reassuring to hear a little bit of mysticism out of a great scientist. There's something terribly quieting about that. Dr. DeBakey, your father immigrated from Lebanon when he was 15. Actually, he was younger than that. Younger than that. Question: How did he end up in Lake Charles, Louisiana? Well, I think largely because he spoke French and that gave him a certain edge. He went into business very early as he was educating himself all the time, too. I think that was one of the main factors as he did. He was
able to get along so well with so many of the French-speaking people. In those days, there were many of them didn't speak English at all, particularly in and around Cameron Parish, even a part of Calcasieu Parish. Doctor, his profession. He owned a drugstore. Two of them. Did that have some influence on, on your career choice? Well, probably did although I can't be sure about that, but, you know, being associated with the medical profession and the doctors through the drugstore put me in touch with them all the time. And I admired them greatly, and I admired what they did, you see -- attendance to the sick, and their benevolence and kindness. Was there any medical background in your family at all? In other words, where does a Michael DeBakey come from? See, that's the elemental question.
Well, I have since learned that there have, there is. Some members of my family, even in Lebanon, one of my cousins is a doctor, another one's a pharmacist. So it is there. Yes, it's been there. Doctor, what traits do you feel you learned from that immigrant father that have held you in good stead? Well, I think, a number of things. Well, my father and mother. First, we were a very close family and we had strict discipline. And I learned a great deal about self-discipline from them, but I also learned kindness and compassion from them. They were very kind and very compassionate. Always ready to help someone who needed help. And integrity. They taught us how important it was to be
honest and to be, as to do your best. They took great pride in whatever we did in school and to do our very best. And they felt that you could exert yourself to do more all the time. Were you an achiever as a child? Well, I, I guess so. Both I and my brothers and sisters as they came along behind me were among the leaders of the class both at grammar school and high school, then at Tulane. Doctor, from your mother you picked up one of the trait or art that I believe has held you in good stead and that's that's sewing or is that legend? No, no, that's true. That was sort of incidental. As you know, I was the firstborn and she did a lot of sewing. She taught
some sewing and she saw I was interested, you see, because I would sit there even before I was going to school and so she taught me how to sew and I enjoyed it. I think it's a great kind of a hobby. Sewing is a wonderful hobby for both men and women. I wonder how many grateful people there are that Mrs. DeBakey taught son Michael how to sew. That's probably saved one or two lives. I'm not sure how my set really has to do with surgery although there is no question about the fact that it gives you... it's like music. I mean, you can appreciate music and you can learn music yourself without actually, you know, having great talent to play an instrument. If you don't have that talent, you know, you aren't going to be a great musician. Doctor, you have a brother who is also a surgeon (Yes, he's a surgeon in Mobile) and two sisters in medicine. Yes, that's right. Correct. You went to Tulane University. In fact, your biography, one of them, says that you raced through Tulane University with three degrees.
[Laughter] Was it a race? I guess, looking back at it now, it would appear that way because of the difference in approach to education by some allthough there is a tendency to get back to some of those principles now. But I did get my bachelor's degree and medical degree in six years and normally you wouldn't be able do that except in England. But my professors knew it, so while I was in medical school the first two years they let me take these courses while I was in medical school to get the proper credits to get my bachelor's degree. Goodness. So I got my bachelor's degree when I finished my sophomore year of medical school. They must have seen a little potential there, Dr. DeBakey. Well, I don't know. They were very nice to me. I enjoyed my stay at Tulane very much. And then, sir, you went to a couple of foreign universities.
Yes. I went to the University of Strasbourg first because it was a man by the name of Leriche who was one of the great pioneering vascular men. And then I went to University of Heidelberg because of a man by the name of Kirschman (?) who was one of the great surgeons in Germany. In those days, many of the foreign centers had some of the leading pioneers in contrast to where most of that takes place in this country. Doctor, as a young medical student, were you immediately interested in the heart? Was that what you centered in on? Well, I became interested in the heart and in the blood vessels through some research work that I was doing in very early days when I began to do some experimental work on circulation, you see.
And it's through that that I developed my interest, learning more about the heart and the blood vessels and so on because in those days there was nothing. There really wasn't a cardiovascular surgery program of any kind. It didn't exist. That developed much later. You then returned to Tulane under Dr. Alton Ochsner. Yes. And I gather his influence on you was monumental. I know that at least two of your sons are named after Dr. Ochsner. Yes, well, I suppose, with the exception of my father and mother, whose influence was greatest in terms of its impact upon me and my life, he truly...he was truly a great man. And I don't need to embellish his record, but I can say that he treated me like one of his own sons and he, in a
sense, guided me and molded me, you see. He was a man of great capability both in terms of a surgeon and a scholar and I guess a lot of the reasons I do so much writing is because he got me started doing that. That's interesting. He was a scholar himself. Doctor, when Dr. Ochsner came out with those very early theories that cigarette smoking caused cancer, what did you think of it in the beginning? How did you feel about it? Were you with him when he originated those theories? Oh, yes, I wrote the first article with him. Interesting, I did not know that. No, I thought he was right because I had helped him get together the data that was available at that time. We were about the only ones that thought we were right. Most everybody else thought we were wrong and didn't agree with us. But time has proven that he was correct.
After years of practicing medical at the very stratified level that you do, you are absolutely convinced that smoking is - harmful - yes. Yes. Really horrible. There's no question about it. Do you see it organically all of the time, Doctor? Yes. On the heart? Not just the lungs? No. It can also affect the human heart. Oh, yes, and it affects the body in general -- the lungs, the heart. I would say it affects the... it has a poisonous, generally poisonous, effect on the body. What's a typical day in the life of a great surgeon? Somebody told me you get going at 4 o'clock in the morning. That pleased me because I start at 4. But I realize with you it's genius and with me it's probably guilt. [Laughter] No, no. No, but I got my habit of getting up early in the morning because of my parents. They started getting up early in the morning and they started us getting up early
so we all got in the habit of it. And it became perfectly normal for us to be up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. Did your family drink coffee together? Yes, certainly. Us, too. Yeah, sure. In fact, one of my chores in the morning was those days we not only ground the coffee with the old grinder, you know, but my mother baked it, you know. My mother roasted it so we got the green beans. I would grind it in the morning. It was one of my chores. So we got in the habit doing that. And I like to get up in the morning and I think once you're in the habit of it, you like to do it, you know. You start the day right. I feel sorry for those people who get up late. You know they've wasted a good part of the day and I don't think you start the day right. I think you've got to get up and the see sun rise. And, Doctor, do you still start with a cup of coffee and a banana? Yeah.
You still have a cup? Yeah, that's about right. No telling how many people who are watching this program now are going to rush out and start drinking coffee and eating bananas because Michael DeBakey says so. No, I'll tell you why I do it. Not that there's anything, you know, magical about it or that it has great therapeutic value, but I can't think of anything easier to prepare for breakfast, you see. I could do that. Yeah, anybody could do that. You know when I get up early in the morning and so that's the first thing I have, my coffee. A cup of coffee. I'm not a great coffee drinker, don't misunderstand me. I have maybe one or two cups in the morning and perhaps one or two in the evening. That's about it. That's all the coffee I drink. Then, do you go to the Baylor Medical Center. Yes, well I may start my study. I may work in my study. I may write for an hour or two. Doctor, how many papers...I read an early article when your bibliography was some
800 articles. What is it up to now? That was back in... It's, it's about eleven hundred. That's monumental. Well, actually, you know, when you think about it, it really isn't that great, you know. It accumulates over the years if you keep doing it. And I like to do it. I mean I enjoy writing very much. And as long as I can, I'm going to write. You can write and, you see, that's a nice hobby to have - isn't it? - after you get old, too. Maybe the last thing you can do is write, now a dictator became... How many secretaries do you keep busy, Dr. DeBakey? Oh, I would say altogether about 20. [Laughter] That's remarkable. Goodness sakes. Well, they do more than just my writing. Yes, sir. You see, I've got a pretty big organization. Doctor, so then
you get to the hospital, Baylor Medical Center, which, of course... Well, I usually get to the hospital by 6:00, 6:30. And then what? Well, then I get things started for the operating room. Yes, sir. How many operations might you perform a day? Well, it varies and depends upon, for example, when I'm [inaudible] my associates carry on. But along with my associates, we do only average about 25 or 30 a day. Do you come in at the crucial moment of the operation? Is that your function? Well now that I've trained so many of my young people - yes, sir - to do exactly the way I want, I can get them started. The teamwork involves a lot of things. I will, I'll be there all the time, but I'm often doing two and three rooms, so I'm moving around and supervising everything, getting things going, and then I go in at the most crucial part of the operation and do that
part. Even at this stage of your career, when you stand atop your art, is that a nerve-wracking profession, surgery, is it? No, I don't think so. I think it's one of the most enjoyable types of, well, for me, you know, it's one of the most enjoyable human activities. You are directly involved in helping somebody. And I think most people enjoy helping somebody, you know, if they can. Even if they can give them first aid, they enjoy doing it or other things that they might do to help them find a job for them or someway to help and console and comfort them. I mean it's a, it's a kind of human nature activity for all of us. But, you see, in medicine the doctor has a more direct involvement and he directly helps them
to relieve them of the suffering, to restore them to health whenever it's possible. Now in surgery, the doctor has even a greater kind of activity in that regard because he actually uses his hands to help them. You see, you can do it by writing a prescription, examining and so on and when you do surgery you actually get yourself and your hands to that person's body. So you're doing something quite active and direct, and I don't think there's anything more gratifying. When I see a patient that I have helped and some patients like I had this past year, a patient I operated on 25 years ago, who would have died had she not had this operation. She is now a woman of about 55, I'd say, nearly 60. She's raised three beautiful children. One of those oldest boys was there with her for a check up. She came in for another condition, not serious.
And I couldn't think of anything more gratifying. The fact that this woman has a good life, a normal life, brought up these children, happy. That's gratifying. The gift of life and the ability to do this. Of course, we have our agonizing moments, too. I mean there are moments when we lose patients because, you know, we're not completely able to be successful in every situation. And those are real agonizing moments and very disappointing. And you, you feel, you know, the deep heartbreaking kind of emotion that happens to you when that occurs. But fortunately today, that occurs in a very small percentage. Overall, maybe only one or two percent. How do you at the end of the day, how do you unwind? Because
obviously that has to be a day of, even with your skill and art, that has to be a day that's filled with tension. The rest of us are dealing with making a living and you're dealing with life and death and, as you just said, a life and death under and by your hand. So how do you come down from that? How do you, how do you get back to Earth? Well, actually it's, it's, it's not nerve wracking. You know, if you enjoy what you're doing, you're not under tremendous stress. The stress comes largely from the fact that you may not be able to finish it that day, what you're doing. You know, you're frustrated. But it's not, I don't feel the need to unwind. When I finally come home, I'm quite ready to sit down and have dinner with my wife and daughter, and if I've got time, if it isn't too late,
I might want to read for an hour or two, maybe write. Do you have any outside interests other than your writing and research? Do you have any outside interests. You mean, like what? Any hobbies? No, I've been through all of that. [Laughter] I used to love to go hunting and fishing. Yes, sir. Living in Southwest Louisiana, it only took you half an hour to get where we were going to find the fish. And I used to be in sports to some extent, even in college. And I played music. I was in a band, an orchestra or two at Tulane. And then, you know, I played golf for a little while and bowled, things like that. But most of those things , and I got into things like photography as a hobby, a few things like that. I finally gave them all up, you know. They couldn't
compete with the things I wanted to do. So, instead of going to play golf, you see, I enjoyed my working more in the laboratory. That was more interesting. So most of these things I finally just gave up completely. They didn't interest me. You ever take a vacation, Dr. DeBakey? No, not in the sense of, you know, scheduling a vacation, but I travel a great deal. How much travel a year? Oh, I would say I must cover maybe 200, 250,000 miles a year. I just got back from Jordan. I was there last week. And whenever I can, on travels like that, if I can arrange a day or two, particularly if it's of some interest or the country has some interesting aspects that I'd like to look into, I might take
a day off just to get a little better appreciation of it and the attributes of that country. Dr. DeBakey, you've been advisor and consultant to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Can you give us quick impressions of those men? Well, my relation with them was purely in terms of trying to advise them on medical research and supporting those activities and I found them all very approachable in that regard. And so that one sort of facet of them was about all that I saw and I liked them from that standpoint, you see. Was Nixon an easy man to talk to? Yes, actually, very easy. Was there some warmth did you feel? Well in my relations with him, yes, because at first he thought I was critical of his policies.
I guess maybe in a way I was. I wrote an article in which I was critical of the general policies. It wasn't his policies so much as I would say the general administration policy of curtailing. research. I thought that was shortsighted. And so I had the opportunity. And I found him quite easy to talk with and understanding of my views too and said he would try to do something about it. What about John F. Kennedy? Well, I think he was a much more, I'd say attractive man, you see, in many ways. He had a certain charisma. I almost immediately related to him when I saw him and was with him. And how about President Johnson, Doctor? Well, of course, Johnson I admired a great deal because
he did make an effort directly to help in medical research. And I found him a very compassionate man, particularly as far as the, as far as people were concerned. You know, he was concerned with people who didn't have opportunities. He wanted to give them opportunities. If they didn't have health, he wanted to give them health. He really wanted to do something for people, and he was quite sincere about it. I admired that very much. Dr. DeBakey, another famous patient we've seen you on television with him during these marathons, and I know I've wondered what kind of man he is. How about Jerry Lewis? What kind of human is he? Oh, I think he's a great human being, a great human being with a great talent, you know, as a clown. There's no question about that. Tremendously talented, but he's really a wonderful human being. He has
a big heart and, of course, he's all wrapped up in these children with muscular dystrophy, you see. Without him, there'd be no Muscular Dystrophy Association. We wouldn't have these centers. He's the one that established these various centers throughout the country. We have one in Houston for the medical center for the study of muscular dystrophy and neuromuscular diseases. He really got that going. He really got it started. You helped him through a personal problem, did you not? Well, in a kind of tangential way. Actually, I think there's a tendency to make more of that than it really was. I think he'd have gotten over that whether... Is he okay, doc? Oh, he's fine, he's great. Will you be on the telethon this year? Well, he's asked me to, and I'm going to try. I'm not absolutely certain yet, but I like to help him on this because I think he's doing such a tremendous job in raising money
for this wonderful cause. Dr. DeBakey, there is enough material concerning you and your life and your accomplishments and your humanity to do not one television interview, but to keep this studio busy for a year. So, I wonder if I could ask you to stay seated in that chair and let's do another program in which we'll get into a little more of the philosophy of a great man and also some of the very interesting patients ranging from the Duke of Windsor to the Shah of Iran, to Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia and get some some views on them. Alright. In the meantime, sir, we're deeply honored to have you back home and you do credit I think to all of us who aspire to being this mysterious creature called a human being. Thanks, Doc. Thank you. [Music]
Louisiana Legends
Dr. Michael DeBakey, Part 1
Producing Organization
Louisiana Public Broadcasting
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Louisiana Public Broadcasting (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
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Episode Description
This episode of the series "Louisiana Legends" from November 12, 1982, features the first part of an interview with Dr. Michael DeBakey conducted by Gus Weill. Dr. DeBakey, a native of Lake Charles, was a preeminent surgeon whose innovations revolutionized heart surgery. He discusses: his father's immigration to Lake Charles from Lebanon; what he learned from his parents; his education at Tulane University; how he became interested in the heart; the impact of Dr. Alton Ochsner on his career; their research on the connection between smoking and cancer; his daily routine; the gratification he receives from helping his patients; his interactions with President Richard Nixon, President John F. Kennedy, and President Lyndon B. Johnson; and his involvement with Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association's annual telethon. Host: Gus Weill
Other Description
"Louisiana Legends is a talk show hosted by Gus Weill. Weill has in-depth conversations with Louisiana cultural icons, who talk about their lives. "
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Talk Show
Local Communities
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Copyright Holder: Louisiana Educational Television Authority
Producing Organization: Louisiana Public Broadcasting
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Louisiana Public Broadcasting
Identifier: C40 (Louisiana Public Broadcasting Archives)
Format: U-matic
Generation: Master
Duration: 00:29:03
Louisiana Public Broadcasting
Identifier: C41 (Louisiana Public Broadcasting Archives)
Format: U-matic
Generation: Master
Duration: 00:29:03
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Chicago: “Louisiana Legends; Dr. Michael DeBakey, Part 1,” 1982-11-12, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 25, 2022,
MLA: “Louisiana Legends; Dr. Michael DeBakey, Part 1.” 1982-11-12. Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 25, 2022. <>.
APA: Louisiana Legends; Dr. Michael DeBakey, Part 1. Boston, MA: Louisiana Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from