Earl E. Bakken, Pacemaker Inventor and Medtronic Founder, Dies at 94


Medtronic’s big break began with a sad event. In 1957, a blackout hit Minneapolis, knocking out power to Dr. Lillehei’s hospital and leading to the death of one of his young patients. He asked Mr. Bakken if he could find a better solution.

Mr. Bakken at first experimented with powering a pacemaker with an automobile battery. Deeming that too bulky, he turned instead to what at the time was a new technology: the transistor. Mr. Bakken’s invention fit in a four-inch-square box, which could be taped to a patient’s chest. The pacemaker transmitted electric signals to the heart through wires that passed through the patient’s chest, and which could be removed without surgery.

Dr. Lillehei installed a prototype on a patient less than four weeks after Mr. Bakken began his work — a time frame that he later noted would be impossible under modern regulations.

Mr. Bakken’s invention transformed Medtronic — but not right away. The company sold only a few dozen pacemakers in 1957 and 1958. In 1960, however, the company licensed the rights to an implantable pacemaker that had been invented by researchers in Buffalo. The next year, the company finally moved out of its garage into a newly built headquarters nearby. Revenues, which were barely $500,000 in 1962, hit nearly $10 million by 1968.

Mr. Bakken was also a philanthropist who focused on science education and medicine. In 1975, he founded the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, which is dedicated to the history of electricity and magnetism. He also helped found the Pavek Museum in nearby St. Louis Park; it houses a collection of antique radio, television and broadcast equipment. He funded several medical programs at the University of Minnesota as well as the Earl and Doris Bakken Heart-Brain Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.

Mr. Bakken’s first marriage, to Connie Olson, as she was known, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Doris (Marshall) Bakken, whom he married in 1982; four children from his first marriage, Wendy Watson, Pamela Petersmeyer and Jeff and Bradley Bakken; his sister, Marjorie Andersen; two stepchildren, Ramona West and David Marshall; 11 grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and eight step-great-grandchildren.

Mr. Bakken was a direct beneficiary of his invention, having pacemakers implanted in himself twice.

“So I’m glad I invented the company,” Mr. Bakken told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2010, “or I wouldn’t be sitting here.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here