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Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken dies at 94

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Earl Bakken
Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken passed away Sunday in Hawaii. He was 94.
Courtesy of Medtronic

The Minnesota native who had a hand in saving or improving the lives of millions of people has died. Earl Bakken, who co-founded medical device company Medtronic out of a northeast Minneapolis garage in 1949, passed away Sunday in Hawaii. He was 94.

"The contributions Earl made to the field of medical technology simply cannot be overstated," Medtronic chair 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 was born in 1924 in the Twin Cities and attended Columbia Heights public schools. In a 2007 interview with MPR News' Tom Crann, Bakken recalled playing with electrical devices as early as 4 years old. 

"I had an uncle who was an electrician. And he told my mother, 'You've gotta stop that boy from playing with those electrical connections. He's going to kill himself,' " Bakken recalled.   

Early workshop
Earl Baaken started Medtronic in his garage in 1949. By 1957 he and a small group of employees had developed the first portable pacemaker.
Courtesy of Medtronic

But his mother ignored the warning and encouraged Bakken, buying him parts he needed for projects. His early inventions included a cigarette-puffing robot, a Taser-like weapon to shock bullies and a kiss-o-meter to measure the intensity of a couple's connection.

But while he learned the science of electricity, it was a work of science fiction that inspired Bakken to become an electrical engineer — the 1931 "Frankenstein" movie starring Boris Karloff.

  "Dr. Frankenstein created this monster by using electricity, retriggering life in it. That gave me the idea later in life I'd like to use electricity for helping people," he said. 

During World War II, Bakken served as a radar maintenance instructor. After the war he studied electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. He co-founded Medtronic with his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie, because he saw a need for skilled maintenance and repair of electronic medical technology.

"The hospitals were bringing this equipment to radio shops," he said. 

Inside the garage
Earl Bakken at work in his garage.
Courtesy of Medtronic

In an interview with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Bakken also recalled how doctors wanted to tweak existing technology.

"So often, someone would ask, 'Isn't there some way we could modify this piece of equipment to do a little different process?' "  

One of the physicians Bakken met was open-heart surgeon pioneer Dr. C. Walton Lillehei. After a frightening 1957 power failure that threatened the lives of patients connected to pacemakers that had to be plugged into electrical outlets, Lillehei asked Bakken to develop a battery-powered device.

In four weeks, Bakken and his employees built a prototype about the size of a small paperback book. That meant the pacemaker could be placed in bed with the patient, rather than on a medical cart next to the bed. 

Bakken successfully tested his new invention on a laboratory dog and planned to make a pacemaker he felt could be used on humans. But Lillehei didn't want to wait and risk losing a patient, so rushed the battery-powered device into service, much to Bakken's surprise. 

  "There was a child in there with this pacemaker connected to him. I said, 'What a great feeling that is to see here's something we made with our own hands keeping this child alive.' "

Early model
The first portable pacemakers were about the size of a small paperback book.
Courtesy of Medtronic

In its first month in business, Medtronic's sales totaled $8.

Now it has more than 86,000 employees and annual revenue of $30 billion. 

The company's products treat everything from diabetes and irregular heartbeats to Parkinson's disease and hearing loss. 

Some of the millions of patients with those devices have reached out to Bakken, including Ron Brown of Nashville, Ill. He has outlasted several Medtronic pacemakers. 

  "I feel that without them, I would not be around," he said. 

  Starting in 1977, Brown has written annual thank-you letters to Bakken, providing updates on graduations, marriages and the births of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

  "I've been around for all of those family events. And those mean so much to my family," he said. 

Bakken wanted to see people given extra years of life through medical technology use their time to make the world a better place. To that end, Medtronic established the Bakken Invitation Award. It annually honors at least 10 people from around the world who use their "extra life" to serve others. 

Sara Meslow was a winner in 2013. After she had a defibrillator implanted in 2000 at the age of 29, she founded a camp for kids with heart conditions.

Meslow said Bakken was an extraordinary role model.

"I'm always amazed by those engineers that can figure out how to put things together and rewire things and do it for the good of other people. I think that's the amazing part with Earl Bakken," she said. "He really wanted to improve the lives of other people and I can't imagine the hundreds of thousands of lives that he has improved or changed because of his technology."

After his retirement from Medtronic, Bakken settled in Hawaii in 1994. He said he personally gained several extra years from a pacemaker, insulin pump and stents, but that they weren't what really kept him going. 

In 2014, when he received the medical industry's lifetime achievement award, Bakken said medicine has more to with spirituality than technology.  

"Medicine is no longer just devices and drugs," he said. "It is the human caring and the many methods to use a patient's mind and spirit for healing."