René Favaloro: The Life and Death of the "Father" of Coronary Bypass Surgery

Dr. René Favaloro (left) pictured with colleague Dr. Mason Sones.
Dr. René Favaloro (left) pictured with colleague Dr. Mason Sones. / The Cleveland Clinic Center for Medical Art & Photography, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Dr. René Favaloro touched many hearts during his lifetime—and continues to do so more than 20 years after his death, thanks to the pioneering work he did in the field of cardiac surgery.

Favaloro, who was born on July 12, 1923, in La Plata, Argentina, first made a mark in his home country. After graduating from La Plata University with a medical degree in 1949, he spent the next 12 years changing healthcare for the better in the La Pampa province, where he established the area’s first mobile blood bank, trained nurses, and built his own operating room. Favaloro then relocated to the U.S. to specialize in thoracic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.

In 1967, Favaloro performed coronary bypass surgery on a 51-year-old woman whose right coronary artery was blocked, restricting blood flow to her heart. Coronary bypass surgery involves taking a healthy vein from elsewhere in the body (in this case, Favaloro borrowed from the patient’s leg, but you can also use a vein from the arm or chest), and using it to channel the blood from the artery to the heart, bypassing the blockage. According to the Mayo Clinic, it doesn’t cure whatever heart disease that caused the blocked artery, but it can relieve symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath, and it gives patients time to make other lifestyle changes to further manage their disease.

Favaloro wasn’t keen on being called the “father” of coronary bypass surgery—"We is more important than I," he once said—but his work brought the procedure to the forefront of the clinical field. He moved back to Argentina in 1971 and launched the Favaloro Foundation to train surgeons and treat a variety of patients from diverse economic backgrounds.

Favaloro died by suicide on July 29, 2000, at the age of 77. His wife had died several years prior, and his foundation had fallen deeply into debt, which Argentinian hospitals and medical centers declined to help pay, The New York Times reported at the time.

“As a surgeon, Dr. Favaloro will be remembered for his ingenuity and imagination,” his colleague Dr. Denton A. Cooley wrote in a tribute shortly after Favaloro’s death. “But as a man ... he will be remembered for his compassion and selflessness.”

A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.