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Heart surgeon honors dentist father with donation

Dr. Ralph C. Cooley invented material that ‘transformed the field of restorative dentistry’

Houston—An internationally renown heart surgeon has made the largest single gift to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Dentistry in honor of his father, a dentist.

IMAGE: Denton Cooley, M.D.
IMAGE: Ralph C. Cooley, D.D.S.
Two generations: Denton Cooley, M.D., top, donated the largest single gift ever to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Dentistry in honor of his father, Dr. Ralph C. Cooley, shown in a 1952 photo. Photo by Brian Schnupp, UT School of Dentistry at Houston

The donation is a tribute to the inventor of the cavity varnish Copalite, Dr. Ralph C. Cooley, who died in 1954. His son, Denton Cooley, M.D., surgeon-in-chief, founder and president emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, announced the gift on Father’s Day.

The donation establishes the Ralph C. Cooley, D.D.S. Distinguished Professorship in Biomaterials, which will help recruit and support the work of a biomaterials clinician/scientist, and a multipurpose facility currently under construction, the Denton A.

Cooley, M.D. and Ralph C. Cooley, D.D.S. Faculty Life Center, opening in 2012.

“I consider it a real opportunity to demonstrate my pride and affection for my father,” said Dr. Denton Cooley, who is 90 years old. “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.”

Dr. John A. Valenza, dean of the dental school, said the gift perpetuates the legacy of Dr. Ralph Cooley, a 1908 graduate of the dental school who transformed the field of restorative dentistry through his innovations.

Copalite, a varnish designed to coat and desensitize a tooth before the cavity was filled, was Dr. Cooley’s best-known invention. He created it in the 1930s in a garage behind his family home.

“It was brilliant,” said Dr. Frank K. Eggleston, immediate past president of the American Academy of Restorative Dentistry and past ADA trustee (1999-2003). “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.”

Dr. Denton Cooley remembers the early days of Cooley & Cooley Ltd., when varnishes were mixed in the 20-by-20-foot space before the Cooleys would move the product into the house for finishing touches. “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,” said Dr. Cooley. “It made me feel like I was a part of the program.”

Sales of Copalite soared when a military medical and dental supply catalog listed it among its products during World War II, and it’s still in limited use today.

Like his father in dentistry, Dr. Denton Cooley became a pioneer of techniques in cardiovascular surgery. He’s helped develop at least 200 surgical products including the heart/lung machine. He said his father encouraged him to pursue a career in dentistry but beamed with pride when he became a heart surgeon instead.

“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,” said Dr. Cooley. He remembers his father as a man who “emphasized honesty, dedication to your profession, hard work and providing for your family unit.

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