Hundreds of mourners and celebrants gathered in the University of Minnesota's Northrop auditorium Tuesday to honor and remember the life of one of the university's most celebrated and successful thinkers, Columbia Heights native Earl E. Bakken, who died in October.
Bakken co-founded medical device maker Medtronic nearly 70 years ago in a garage a few miles from the U, creating a company that today is the world's largest maker of medical devices, with 86,000 employees around the world. He built the world's first battery-powered portable pacemaker for a U patient, helping to launch an industry that restores health to millions of people worldwide, speakers at Bakken's memorial said.
"We're here today to honor Earl for everything he has given us. He was an entrepreneur, he was an innovator, and a passionate and generous philanthropist. He was also a visionary who never stopped seeking to benefit humankind," said Omar Ishrak, chairman and CEO of Medtronic, as images of Bakken flashed on the large screen behind him.
Bakken, who died Oct. 21 at the age of 94 at his home in Hawaii, was known for forming deep personal connections with patients, doctors and the people he worked with through the years. A sizable swath of Tuesday's guest list of more than 2,000 was based on Bakken's annual Christmas card list.
The audience included members of the extended Bakken family, current Medtronic employees who won tickets through a lottery system and members of the original "Garage Gang" of early Medtronic employees. The event at the U also featured three former Medtronic CEOs as speakers, in addition to Ishrak.
Bakken earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Minnesota's land-grant university through the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1948. A decade later, pioneering U heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei famously asked Bakken to build a pacemaker that didn't depend on power from a wall socket, after a widespread power outage took the life of a baby who was depending on a pacemaker plugged into an outlet.
University President Eric Kaler, speaking at the memorial, said Bakken had received virtually every honorific the U could bestow on him, including its first-ever honorary medical degree. "His contributions to our university are simply immeasurable," Kaler said.
The event featured the directors of the two centers for health care at the U that bear his name, displaying a diverse range of interests.
Mary Jo Kreitzer spoke about the work of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing, where she is director, while Arthur Erdman talked about the Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center, where he is director. The center for healing is working on opioid alternatives for pain, for example, while the medical devices center recently used virtual reality and 3-D printing to assist in a groundbreaking surgical separation of conjoined twins connected through the heart and liver.
Though he invented a machine that connected a battery-powered metronome circuit to the human heart, Bakken also strongly believed that all healing comes from the body's own capacity to heal itself, which is why the integrative hospital he helped found in Hawaii includes natural light in all rooms and views of mountainscapes.
It was said that Bakken perhaps did not understand the meaning of the words "impossible to build," evidenced in such projects as his extensive and sustainably powered home in Hawaii or the several thousand nuclear-powered Medtronic pacemakers that were implanted in people in the 1970s.
In the 1960s he developed a 100-year plan for Medtronic, outlining scores of implantable and external medical devices, some of which have since been invented and commercialized. And in 1960 he wrote his most famous document, the Medtronic Mission, beginning with lofty goal, "to contribute to human welfare by application of biomedical engineering in the research, design, manufacture, and sale of instruments or appliances that alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life."
The six-point plank was notable for several reasons, including its insistence on good corporate citizenship, a recognition of the intrinsic worth of every employee and a need to earn only a "fair profit" on its lifesaving products.
This last point on making a fair profit was interesting, Ishrak noted, because at the time Bakken wrote the mission, Medtronic was probably making zero profit. The company was borrowing money to stay afloat, and Bakken needed to come up with a set of principles that would guide its financial decisions. The resulting mission statement still stands today.
Bakken's voice played over the house PA during Ishrak's presentation: "I wrote the Medtronic mission in 1960. When I wrote that mission, I never realized what an impact it would have on the future of our company. And I ask you to keep those words in your mind, and particularly in your heart. I want you to live by it every day."