Earl Bakken, 1924–2018
The medical pioneer who kept hearts ticking
Born in Minneapolis, Bakken became fascinated with electricity at age 8 “after seeing the 1931 movie Frankenstein,” said The New York Times. “What intrigued me the most,” he said, “was not the monster’s rampages, but the creative spark of Dr. Frankenstein’s electricity.” He became a tinkerer, assembling an Erector Set robot that smoked cigarettes and devising a Taser-like stun gun to discourage schoolyard bullies. While studying electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Bakken “noticed that few hospitals had technical staffs to maintain their gear,” said The Wall Street Journal. He founded Medtronic with his brother-in-law to fill that niche. Business was slow at first, and Bakken sometimes fixed TV sets when there was no medical equipment to repair. But when Lillehei wrote about the portable pacemaker, Medtronic began receiving orders from around the world.
The company began manufacturing implantable pacemakers in 1960, “which further revolutionized cardiac care,” said The Washington Post. Medtronic now produces everything from coronary stents to surgical equipment. After retiring as chairman in 1989, Bakken often noted that he was a repeat Medtronic customer himself, having been outfitted with an insulin pump and two pacemakers made by his firm. “So I’m glad I invented the company,” he said in 2010, “or I wouldn’t be sitting here.”