Dr. John Ochsner, a medical educator and pioneering cardiothoracic surgeon of international renown, died Friday in the hospital that bears his family name. He was 91.

As the son of the late Dr. Alton Ochsner — one of five Tulane doctors who struck out on their own in 1941 to start a private group practice that has grown into a health care juggernaut — Dr. John Ochsner was expected to fill big shoes within the Ochsner health care system.

And many colleagues say that is exactly what he did.

"For more than 57 years, Dr. Ochsner has been a consistent, larger-than-life presence across our hospitals and with our staff and patients," Ochsner Health System CEO Warner Thomas and board Chairman Andy Wisdom said in a statement. 

A historical document published in 2014 by the American Association of Thoracic Surgery described the father-and-son pair as "heroes of southern medicine.” 

Dr. John Ochsner

Dr. John Ochsner

Although age ultimately forced Dr. John Ochsner to curtail his surgical practice, he never gave up the practice of patient care, said a friend of 50 years, H. Hunter White Jr.

“In his later years, he began making rounds in the hospital, just as his father did, to listen to people and try to make sure their needs were met. He helped everybody he could possibly help to get needed medical care,” White said of the man known by his friends as “Johnny” or “Johnny O.”

“That’s just who he was. He was the face of the place, in many people’s eyes.”

No one writes the history of the Ochsner family and the medical complex bearing their name without stressing the role of Dr. Michael DeBakey, a pioneer in the development of artificial hearts and valves who, together with Dr. Denton Cooley, was the first to implant a completely artificial heart.

Dr. Alton Ochsner served as an early mentor to DeBakey and helped train him in the New Orleans area. In fact, when DeBakey was a young medical student under Dr. Alton Ochsner, he babysat John Ochsner and the other Ochsner children.

DeBakey, in turn, was an early mentor to Dr. John Ochsner and helped train him in Texas.

After Dr. John Ochsner returned from military service in the Korean War, he went to Houston to complete his surgical residency under DeBakey at Baylor College of Medicine and also worked a year under Cooley. He described his years with DeBakey and Cooley as “the beginning of heart surgery.”

He used that training to help drive the creation of a thoracic and cardiac program at Ochsner Hospital after he and his wife Mary Lou relocated from Houston to New Orleans in 1961.

“In Houston, I was working with Drs. DeBakey and Cooley on patients who were leaving Ochsner and coming to Texas because that was the place where (the cutting-edge) work was being done,” Dr. John Ochsner said in the 2014 article. “It wasn’t going very well in New Orleans. It was almost embarrassing to me, and I wanted to go back ... where my last name was on a clinic in New Orleans.”

He notched many firsts during his years at Ochsner, including early work with valve and coronary surgery, pacemakers, and the first heart, lung and liver transplants.

In 1970 Dr. John Ochsner led a surgical team that transplanted a woman’s 36-year-old heart into a 52-year-old Metairie man. It was the first such procedure in the Gulf South and among the earliest done anywhere in the world. But it would take another 20 years of research, trials and advances in tissue typing and development of immunosuppressant drugs to increase survival rates.

In all, more than 950 heart transplants have been performed at Ochsner under the auspices of the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute.

In 2000, Dr. John Ochsner received the Michael E. DeBakey Surgical Award, bestowed on the world’s outstanding surgeons as chosen by the DeBakey International Surgical Society. The society has given 17 awards since 1978. His father received one of the first.

He authored more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and was a past president of both the International Society for Cardiovascular Surgery and the American Association of Thoracic Surgery, as well as a past chairman of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. 

It has been claimed that Dr. John Ochsner was born into “medical royalty.” It is a fact, however, that he was Carnival royalty in New Orleans, where he ruled as Rex, King of Carnival, in 1990.

White, who played tennis for years with Ochsner until advancing age caused them to switch to golf, said his old friend enjoyed to the hilt his reign as Rex. 

“My friend had such a wonderful sense of humor and enjoyed having fun in life,” White said. “He laughed like the devil, even when the joke was on him.”

White’s wife, Lynne, said Ochsner was “a joy” to be with. "He had a twinkle, a positiveness. He was such fun to be with, and everybody loved him for all these reasons.”

New Orleans philanthropist and community organizer Anne Milling said, “Johnny O was charming and debonair and intelligent and engaging, but so compassionate and caring. He embodied all the best qualities one can imagine.”

Survivors include his wife, Mary Lou Ochsner; two sons, Dr. John Ochsner Jr., and Frank Ochsner; two daughters, Dr. Katherine Isabel Ochsner and Joby Ochsner; a sister, Isabel Mann; and two grandchildren.

Family members said plans for a celebration of Dr. John Ochsner's life will be announced soon.