A Son’s Love, a Father’s Legacy

UTHealth to dedicate facility named for Dr. Denton A. Cooley and his father

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Denton Cooley, M.D.

Denton Cooley, M.D.

HOUSTON - (May 8, 2012) - Denton A. Cooley, MD, surgeon-in-chief, founder and president emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, and members of his family will join UTHealth faculty, staff, students and other guests for the dedication of the university’s first multi-purpose center.

The construction of the center, which is located on the Texas Medical Center's South Campus adjacent to the soon-to-open new home for the UTHealth School of Dentistry, was supported by a recent gift the famous heart surgeon made in memory of his father, a 1908 alumnus of the dental school.

The Denton A. Cooley, MD and Ralph C. Cooley, DDS University Life Center, which is 14,000 square feet, serves as a place for professional conferences, meetings and other events and has the capacity to seat as many as 400 people.

During the early to mid-1900s, Ralph C. Cooley rose to prominence as a pioneer who transformed the field of restorative dentistry.

As one of the first graduates of the Texas Dental College, which later became the UTHealth School of Dentistry, he started his practice in his family’s home in the Houston Heights.

The good-humored dentist soon moved his successful practice downtown, first to the Binz Building and later to the Gulf Building, and his patients included some of Houston’s most prominent leaders.

Over the years, he refined dental techniques and invented products to restore smiles. He died in 1954 at the age of 65.

Last Father’s Day, Denton, the younger of the dentist’s two sons, announced a gift to UTHealth. The generous tribute helped to establish the Cooley University Life Center and also the Ralph C. Cooley, DDS, Distinguished Professorship in Biomaterials at the UTHealth School of Dentistry.

“I consider it a real opportunity to demonstrate my pride and affection for my father,” said Cooley, who is now 91. “The older I get, the more grateful I am for his influence on my life and development. He was an outstanding parent who served as a role model.”

John A. Valenza, DDS, dean of the UTHealth School of Dentistry, said the gift perpetuates the legacy of Dr. Ralph Cooley, an innovator who inspired others to continue the advancement of dentistry.

Giuseppe Colasurdo, MD, president ad interim of UTHealth, added, “Dr. Denton Cooley has been a tremendous friend to UT, and we thank him for his continued support. We all know Dr. Cooley as a giant in the medical field and with this generous gift have learned that helping others through innovation and technology is in Dr. Cooley’s DNA.”

Cooley, a founding member of UTHealth’s Heritage Society, said it provides him emotional comfort to know that the memory of his father’s place in dental history lives on at UTHealth.

“He would be enormously proud of having this center there in his honor, and it would really please him greatly,” Cooley said of his father. “I’m sure he would have loved to have taken part in any activities in that center.”

Described in the May 1955 edition of the Texas Dental Journal as “one of the better known and admired dentists of this country and one of the relatively few dentists with an enviable international reputation,” the late Cooley was perhaps best known for his invention of Copalite. The varnish was designed to coat and desensitize a tooth before the cavity was filled.

“It was brilliant,” said Frank K. Eggleston, DDS, a retired Houston dentist and past president of the American Academy of Restorative Dentistry. “Before Copalite, there was nothing like it. It calmed the tooth and dried almost immediately. I don’t know a dentist in the United States who didn’t have a bottle of Copalite.”

Still in limited use today by dentists nationwide, Copalite’s creation in the early 1930s – as with other inventions of Dr. Ralph Cooley’s – began in a garage behind the Montrose home the family moved to after Denton was born.

“We had a little building there in that backyard of our house on 908 West Alabama,” Cooley recalled. “And in that little building there we mixed the ingredients of Copalite and produced some of it and packaged some of his other inventions that came along. Really, that little Copalite company began in a building about 20 by 20 feet.”

Barrels of the Copal resin used to make the dental varnish were shipped from Africa to the Cooley residence. After mixing the varnish in the back building – the headquarters for Cooley & Cooley, Ltd. – the Cooleys would move the product into the house for the finishing touches.

“I can recall in those early days of Copalite, we would put together a package. We used to convert the breakfast room at 908 West Alabama into sort of a packaging area,” Cooley said. “We would put these Copalite things together in packages, and then I can recall getting on my bicycle, going down to the Medical Arts Building and delivering those 12 packages. It made me feel like I was a part of the program.”

At the onset of World War II, a military medical and dental supply catalog listed Copalite among the products for sale. “Suddenly our sales quadrupled or multiplied many times – quite a change,” Cooley said. The increased demand for Copalite proved profitable and even led to a family joke that the varnish was being used to paint battleships.

Other inventions included the Cooley Dam and the Cooley Peg. The peg was almost like a golf tee. “It had an application to put an inlay in, and the patient would bite down on the peg and seat the inlay properly,” he said.

His father’s inventions likely motivated Dr. Denton Cooley to make innovations in his own profession, he said. A University of Texas at Austin graduate, Cooley earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1944. Like his father, he served in the military. In 1951, he returned to his hometown and went on to become a world-renowned cardiac surgeon and the first to perform a successful human heart transplant in the United States. The pioneer of many techniques used in cardiovascular surgery today, Dr. Denton Cooley has helped develop at least 200 surgical products, including the heart/lung machine.

“I talked to many of my father’s patients, and they said every time they went to my father’s office, he spent so much time talking about my career,” Cooley said. “He was so proud that I was at Johns Hopkins and doing all these things in my profession, and I think he was very proud of what I was doing.”

Likewise, Cooley was proud of his father. “He emphasized honesty, dedication to your profession, hard work and providing for your family unit,” he said.

Cooley recalls that his father was “very much a man of the times,” a bon vivant who was a friend to everyone who came his way. He was a dapper dresser who took pride in the location of his dental practice and enjoyed the luxuries of travel – whether it was traveling first-class to a dental conference or driving his Lincoln Zephyr Continental to work. He also resisted Prohibition, indulged his two sons’ fascination with cars and always enjoyed a good laugh.

“He really loved to tell jokes,” Cooley said. “People would be in the dental chair with their mouth all full of cotton and stuff. He would tell a joke, and patients would end up spitting out the cotton to join him in laughter.”

Dr. Ralph Cooley considered the game of golf to be frivolous and thought that one’s hobby should be his profession, his son said. The elder Cooley abhorred dental advertising, offended by the notion that anyone would use a giant molar to promote the practice of dentistry.

“He was a strong proponent of his profession and did what he could to improve the respect that people had for the dental profession,” Cooley said.

Dr. Ralph Cooley, a former president of the American Academy of Restorative Dentistry and the Texas Dental Association, even tried to convince his youngest son to become a dentist and take over his dental practice. In an effort to sway young Denton’s interest toward dentistry, he would invite his son to the dental lab to work. Once, Denton required some dental work, so his father instructed him on how to craft his own inlay, a tooth filling shaped to fit a cavity and then cemented into place.

Years later, Cooley was in London and had an appointment with a dentist who praised his father’s work and admired the inlay the heart surgeon had, as a teenager, shaped with such precision based on his father’s instructions. The inlay, which remains in Dr. Denton Cooley’s mouth to this day, was not merely the crude chunk of gold that was customary at the time. It was perfection.

“People say my dad was the best dentist in the world.”

Meredith Raine
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