In Memoriam:
John L. Ochsner, M.D.

A Surgical Icon. A Visionary Leader. An Incomparable Legacy.

For nearly six decades Dr. John Ochsner was a larger-than-life presence at the organization that carries his family’s name and was founded by his father, Dr. Alton Ochsner. Over his remarkable life, Dr. Ochsner’s professional accomplishments and contributions to Ochsner Health System, to his community and to modern medicine became almost too numerous to list. Among them: 12,000 surgeries performed. More than 300 medical publications, journals and books authored. The first surgeon to perform a heart transplant in the Gulf South region. And the only physician to hold all three of the most prestigious cardiovascular honors in the field: President of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, President of The International Society for Cardiovascular Surgery and Chairman of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery.

Dr. John Ochsner was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved with his family to New Orleans when he was only three months old. After earning his medical degree from Tulane University, he completed surgical residencies at Baylor University Affiliated Hospitals and Texas Children’s Hospital, serving as Chief Surgical Resident at each. During his training he was mentored by two giants of cardiac and vascular surgery: Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley. This was a period when innovative surgical techniques were being pioneered at the Texas hospitals, and Dr. Ochsner often encountered patients who had travelled from Louisiana because advanced cardiac care was not yet available in the state. In 1961 he was inspired to return to New Orleans to work alongside his father at the Ochsner Clinic, bringing his expertise in emerging cardiac and vascular surgical techniques to Ochsner patients.

John Ochsner, MD, consults with a patient in the late 1970s
Drs. Alton (left) and John Ochsner during a 1970s surgery

Dr. John Ochsner became a world-renowned cardiac surgeon, pioneering valve and coronary surgery. A medical trailblazer, in 1974 he implanted a heart pacemaker in the youngest patient ever, an infant only 18 hours old. He once noted, “I can truly say that I am happiest and most content in the operating room.”

In addition to treating thousands of patients, Dr. Ochsner trained the next generation of physicians as a clinical professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine. As Chairman of the Department of Surgery from 1966 to 1987, Dr. Ochsner built the foundation for what is now Ochsner’s world-renowned cardiac surgery center. His leadership in the 1971 expansion of the hospital, including a 12-bed coronary care unit, was the foundation of today’s John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute.

In his later years Dr. Ochsner remained actively involved as Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Surgery and was a strong philanthropic supporter of Ochsner – both through his own contributions and his work to connect new donors to meaningful programs. After concluding his career as an active surgeon, he delighted in continuing to make rounds in the hospital, checking on patients and their families. His focus always remained on delivering the best patient care possible.

Over the course of his magnificent career, Dr. John Ochsner saved the lives of countless patients while changing the lives of thousands of physicians and community members. Near the end of his life he reflected, “As I look back on the 90 years I have walked this Earth, I feel that I have exceeded my goals in both academic and clinical medicine. I hope these efforts have been beneficial to others.”

Of that there can be no doubt. The work we undertake today stands on the strong foundation he did so much to build. We are grateful for Dr. John Ochsner’s friendship and for his legacy, which will endure for generations to come.

Former Ochsner CEO Patrick Quinlan, MD (right), presents the Ochsner Lifetime Achievement Award to John Ochsner, MD, in 2004