Glen Nelson, a surgeon and health care innovator and patriarch of one of Minnesota’s most prominent families, died Saturday at age 79.
Nelson, of Long Lake, who died from congestive heart failure, had been in Egypt seeking medical treatment, his family said.
The husband of former Carlson CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Glen Nelson had a long and distinguished medical and business career. He performed general surgery for 17 years for Park Nicollet Medical Center, serving as its chairman and chief executive from 1975 to 1986. Later, he applied his medical expertise to helping fashion medical devices as vice chairman of Medtronic from 1986 to 2003.
More recently, he served with numerous other medical technology companies — as director and board chairman at Cardiovascular Systems Inc. (CSI) of St. Paul, as director at NxThera Inc. of Maple Grove and as a special adviser of Itamar Medical Ltd., based in Israel.
“The great thing about my dad was that he had a tremendous footprint in health care,” said Diana Nelson, a daughter of Glen and Marilyn and chairman of the board at Carlson. “He started with individual patients, [then went to developing] pacemakers at Medtronic and investing in multiple health care companies to help them grow.”
Of his transition from surgeon to medical company executive, Nelson once said, “As a surgeon you save one life at a time, but with medical devices, you know you are saving so many more.”
Bill George, a former chief executive at Medtronic who knew Nelson for more than 40 years, said no one knew more about medicine and business strategies.
“He never wanted credit or to be out in front, but we had $13 billion in acquisitions that Glen led,” he said. “He took us beyond pacemakers and defibrillators.”
Scott Ward, who worked with Nelson at Medtronic and is now chief executive of CSI, called Nelson “an extraordinary world leader in health care.
“He had boundless enthusiasm to improve the human condition,” Ward said. “Whether it was improving the quality of life or saving lives, he knew about cardiac, brain and spinal cord stimulation, orthopedics and cardiology. His interests spanned nearly all of medicine.”
Bill Kling, the founder of Minnesota Public Radio, knew Nelson, an MPR board member, for 30 years. “He taught me all of the traits that were successful for him — technology, business strategy, complexity,” Kling said. “He helped MPR understand how digital technology would change the media.”
When Nelson retired from Medtronic, Kling invited him to go skiing, but Nelson demurred, Kling said, because “he had six start-ups that he was already helping.” Eventually, Nelson would go on the boards of 13 companies to nourish entrepreneurial scientists,
Friends, colleagues and family members also spoke of Nelson’s dry sense of humor, including a deep well of Sven and Ole jokes. Daughter Wendy Nelson of Minneapolis said he would tell them with a Swedish accent and that a few were politically incorrect. “We’d be at a function and Dad would start telling a Sven and Ole joke, and my mother would shoot him a look like, ‘Please, not one of the irreverent ones,’ ” she said. “He was very mischievous.”
Nelson’s parents, Ralph and Edna Mae Nelson, were both pharmacists. He and Marilyn both graduated from Edina High School, but they didn’t really meet until a college mixer while Glen was attending Harvard and Marilyn was at Smith College. They married in 1961.
For the last two weeks of his life, Nelson was being seen in Egypt by Dr. Magdi Yacoub, a world-renowned cardiologist. “It was in his character to try the latest medical advancements. He always believed in gifted medical doctors,” said daughter Diana. He died of complications after heart surgery.
Wendy said her dad’s quiet influence is now his legacy.
“After I moved back to Minneapolis about 10 years ago, at every dinner I went to, someone would come over to me quietly and say, ‘You’ll never know what your dad did for me,’ ” she said. “Whether it was starting a business or medical issues with a child, it was a side of him I didn’t always see. He was like the joke about the Swede who loved his wife so much he almost told her.”
In addition to his wife and daughters Diana and Wendy, Nelson is survived by a son, Curtis Carlson Nelson; six grandchildren and three stepgrandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Juliet.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church.