Earl Bakken, the Minneapolis electronics repairman who invented a pacemaker that kept a child’s heart beating with a battery, inspiring a generation of lifesaving electronic medical devices, has died. He was 94.
The Columbia Heights native died Sunday surrounded by family at his home on Kiholo Bay in Hawaii, 4,000 miles west of the northeast Minneapolis garage where he famously built the world’s first wearable, battery-powered pacemaker based on a sketch for a metronome circuit in Popular Electronics magazine.
Medtronic, the family business he co-founded in 1949 in that garage, is today the world’s largest medical device company, with 86,000 full-time employees around the world and a market capitalization of more than $129 billion. He led the company for 40 years.
“The contributions Earl made to the field of medical technology simply cannot be overstated,” current Medtronic chairman and CEO Omar Ishrak said in a statement. “His spirit will live on with us as we work to fulfill the mission he wrote nearly 60 years ago — to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.”
Bakken had several implanted medical devices himself, including stents, insulin pumps and a Medtronic pacemaker. “I’m on my second pacemaker, and I’m on about my third or fourth insulin pump,” Bakken told the Pioneer Press in December 2010. “So I’m glad I invented the company, or I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Bakken grew up in the Minneapolis first-ring suburb of Columbia Heights and was struck as a child by the film “Frankenstein.” But like Medtronic, which eventually outgrew its Minnesota homestead, Bakken decamped Minnesota for the oceanfront of Hawaii’s Big Island in 1994. He discovered a tropical locale where he helped run a hospital, build a sustainable residential compound and embrace a diverse set of ideas about medicine.
Harvard management Prof. Bill George, one of the men who took over the reins of Medtronic as chief executive after Bakken stepped down, said Bakken was known for making sure that future leaders continued the company’s original values.
“He was a remarkable human being, a visionary 25 years ahead of his time,” George said Sunday. “He was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, the pioneer of one of our strongest industries, and really stood for all the values that Minnesota stands for,” George said.
Bakken was a man of paradoxes.
A self-described nerdy engineer, Bakken loved ballroom dancing. He would frequently tell employees about the importance of family, though work consumed his first marriage. He hated traveling, yet flew over 3 million miles during his life. An introvert comfortable at the lab benchtop, Bakken learned to call the shots from the head of boardroom tables.
The Smithsonian Museum of American History used a 1955 photo of Bakken working at his northeast Minneapolis workbench, with his flannel-clad back to the camera like a grunge rocker, as a symbol of the ingenuity and creative risk-taking that was in the air in Minneapolis in the 1950s and beyond.
A childhood love of radio sent Bakken into the Army Signal Corps during World War II. He later attended college on the G.I. Bill, enrolling as an undergrad in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. He entered grad school for EE, but dropped out and went on to co-found a hospital-equipment repair company instead.
In April 1949, Bakken and brother-in-law Palmer Hermundslie, who was married to Bakken’s then-wife’s sister, formed a partnership to repair and modify hospital equipment. No one else was doing it at the time. The field was not then regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Bakken was 25.
The new company was called Medtronic, and it set up shop in the unheated boxcar used as a garage by the Hermundslie family at 818 19th Av. NE. “Even by startup standards, the place was pretty crude,” Bakken wrote in his autobiography. “On the positive side, the price was right. The Hermundslies didn’t charge the company rent.”
The business mixed jobs fixing TVs and selling other companies’ medical devices with its most important work: custom-made devices for doctors.
History struck Minneapolis when pioneering U heart surgeon Dr. C. Walton Lillehei asked Bakken to make a pacemaker that could keep babies alive on battery power, in case a blackout hit, as one had on Halloween 1957.
Bakken settled on a design based on a metronome circuit, using transistors instead of the large vacuum tubes that caused pacemakers of the day to be the size of air conditioners. The result was a device that was battery-powered and worn on the body, physically connected to the heart through a wire that passed through the skin.
After just four weeks of work, Bakken delivered his custom-made, battery-powered pacemaker to a U animal lab, which confirmed that it worked as intended. The next day, Bakken said he was “stunned” to see the device attached to one of Lillehei’s pediatric patients. The device worked.
Today about 3 million people worldwide have an implanted pacemaker. Bakken got his first one in 2001, and a second in 2009 after the battery in the first ran its natural life.
In 1995, he was named to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 2007, at age 83, Bakken became the first recipient of an honorary medical degree from the U. Today the U has two centers named in his honor — the Earl E. Bakken Center for Medical Devices and the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
“His full life was one of unmeasured generosity in service to humankind,” Susan Pueschel, his publicist in Hawaii, said about him. “His constant message in later years was to live on, give on, and dream on.”