Medtronic co-founder Earl E. Bakken, a pioneer in medical technology whose inventions impacted the lives of millions of people around the world, passed away Sunday, October 21st in Hawaii. He was 94 years old.
“All of us at Medtronic are saddened today by the news of Earl’s passing,” said Omar Ishrak, chairman and CEO of Medtronic. “Earl was a true pioneer in healthcare and his vision of using technology to help people still inspires us today. We are privileged to continue the work that he started over 60 years ago and we remain fully committed to all six tenets of the Mission that he crafted so many years ago.” Bakken turned a childhood fascination with electricity into Medtronic, the world’s largest medical device company. Along with brother-in-law Palmer J. Hermundslie, Bakken founded the company, which grew from a struggling operation in a Minneapolis garage to a multinational medical technology corporation.
In the late 1950’s, Bakken developed the first external, wearable, battery-powered, transistorized heart pacemaker, and commercialized the first implantable pacemaker in 1960. Medtronic grew rapidly from there; today its medical products and devices improve the lives of two people every second. And it all started because young Earl Bakken was fascinated by Frankenstein. In the early 1930’s, at age eight, Bakken and his friends regularly attended Saturday matinee movies at the Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights, Minn., not far from the present day operational headquarters of Medtronic. He remembered being captivated by actor Colin Clive’s portrayal of the mad scientist. “What intrigued me the most, as I sat through the movie again and again,” Bakken later recalled, “was the creative spark of Dr. Frankenstein’s electricity. Through the power of his wildly flashing laboratory apparatus, the doctor restored life to the un-living.” By age nine, Bakken’s fascination with electricity led to a phone system stretching across the street to a friend’s house.
Later, among his many childhood inventions, he built a radio from a crystal set and a five-foot-tall robot that could blink and speak. At his confirmation in 1937, the minister told young Bakken to “use science to benefit humankind,” and that message resonated with him the rest of his life. “I recognized later that was my spiritual calling,” Bakken said in 2008. After serving as a radar instructor in World War II, Bakken earned a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. In grad school, Bakken did parttime work repairing delicate lab equipment at Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Demand for his services grew, and on April 29, 1949, Bakken and Hermundslie formed a business partnership and called their company Medtronic.
The business struggled, but while servicing medical equipment, Bakken and Hermundslie built relationships with doctors at university hospitals in Minneapolis. There they met C. Walton Lillehei, a young staff surgeon who would later become famous for pioneering open-heart surgery. Following a blackout in the Twin Cities that caused the death of an infant, Lillehei asked Bakken to come up with a solution. He responded by adapting a circuit described in Popular Electronics magazine to create the first external wearable, battery-powered pacemaker, replacing the large, alternating current- powered pacemakers that were in use at the time. They expanded services to other medical technology. Then in 1960, the first implantable pacemaker was implanted in a human patient. Bakken and Hermundslie reached a licensing agreement with the inventors, giving their small company exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights to the device, and Medtronic took off.
Earl Hatten was employee number eight at the tiny company. “The thing I liked about Mr. Bakken, and the thing that I think helped Medtronic grow was that he had the ability to pick good people to do a job and then he got out of their way and let them do their job. A lot of CEOs can’t do that and the companies don’t grow,” Hatten said.
Through the decades that followed, Medtronic grew exponentially, refining its heart devices and expanding into other medical businesses such as diabetes treatment, brain surgery and spine therapy. The company now employs more than 86,000 people around the world. Bakken was at the helm for 40 years, retiring as Medtronic chairman in 1989. “We didn’t set out to be the world’s largest medical device company,” Bakken said. “We just wanted to make a lasting positive change in patients’ lives.” Bakken maintained close contact with the company throughout his retirement, and his legacy within Medtronic will forever be the Medtronic Mission.
In 1960, Bakken wrote a mission statement for Medtronic that has remained intact, word for word, ever since. In part, it reads: “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.” “Earl always had a vision of healthcare of not being about devices, about drugs, but about restoring people to full health,” said former Medtronic CEO Bill George. “And so from the very start he was focused on not implanting a device, but enabling people to live a full active life and he delivered that point of view to all Medtronic employees through The Mission. Earl is one of the greatest visionaries in the history of medicine,” George said. In retirement, Bakken set out to fulfill that mission in new ways. In 1975, he founded The Bakken Museum, a nonprofit library, museum and education center in Minneapolis. The Bakken Museum is devoted to the history of electricity and magnetism and their uses in science and medicine.
In 1994, Bakken built a home in Hawaii, where he became Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Five Mountain Medical Community as it developed the North Hawaii Community Hospital. He helped to establish Tutu’s House, a community resource center promoting careers, education, and effective health outcomes, and the Kohala Center, which concerns itself with scientific resources an education. Bakken was also involved in several other philanthropic ventures including the Na Kalai Waa Moku O Hawaii, Friends of the Future, and the Imiloa: Astronomy Center of Hawaii.
A lifelong aspiration came true for Bakken in 2013, when Medtronic Philanthropy launched The Bakken Invitation to honor people who received medical devices, and who made an impact on the lives of others, through service and volunteerism. Bakken, who in his later years became a medical device patient, with a pacemaker, coronary stents and insulin pump, was fond of asking patients what they planned to do with their gift of “extra life.” Each year Bakken met with the honorees. “Their stories are a powerful reminder that we can all give back – no matter our current situation,” he said after meeting them in 2014. Every year in December, Medtronic employees gather to mark another Bakken inspiration – the employee holiday program. The company invites patients from all over the world to share their stories of how medical technology has improved their lives. Hundreds of employees fill the Medtronic conservatory for the event, while thousands of others listen or watch via Medtronic TV. Ron Brown, who received his first Medtronic pacemaker in 1972, was among the first patients to speak at the holiday program. Every year for 40 years, Bakken read Brown’s Christmas letter to the assembled employees. Brown and Bakken, patient and inventor, became friends. “The man has been an inspiration for so many young people,” Brown said in 2014. “I mean – to be around him is inspiring. You know that he’s constantly thinking and trying to solve problems and when he was developing the company, when he formed it, his thought of better health was always on his mind. And that inspiration for others to develop that idea is as great as what he accomplished.” In his later years, Bakken was asked to reflect on his legacy. “When you put it all together and you see a person fully restored – physically mentally, spiritually – from what we have done. What better career could anyone think of?” he said.
H Bakken was born to Florence and Osval Bakken on January 10, 1924, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is survived by his wife, Doris J. Bakken, sister Marjorie Andersen of Avon, IN, children Wendy Watson and husband Warren of New Brighton, MN, Jeff Bakken and wife, Linda Shaw of Orono, MN, Bradley Bakken and wife Mary of Orono, MN, Pamela Petersmeyer and husband Jeff of Prior Lake, MN, step-children Ramona West of Waikoloa, HI, and David Marshall and wife Linda of Rice, MN, eleven grandchildren, three stepgrandchildren, and eight stepgreat- grandchildren. Medtronic will host a program for employees to celebrate Bakken’s life and accomplishments. A date has not yet been set.