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The Medtronic Story – Our History

1 July 2010

One of the things I really like about working for Medtronic is that it is a company with a heritage.

The story of how Earl Bakken founded the company was one of the things that inspired me to join Medtronic in Australia, so I think it is worth retelling here.   If you want to learn more, visit the Our Story section on our website.

Medtronic had a modest beginning. It was formed as a partnership in April 1949 by Earl Bakken and his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie. At the time, Earl was a graduate student in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota and did part-time work repairing delicate lab equipment at Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

With demand for his services continuing to grow, Earl left his graduate studies, Palmer quit his job with a local lumber firm, and together they formed a medical equipment repair company they named Medtronic. The two men set up shop in a garage in northeast Minneapolis.

In the mid-1950s, Earl Bakken became acquainted with Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, a pioneer in open heart surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School. At that time, Dr. Lillehei and other surgeons discovered that heart block occurred after corrective heart surgery in about 10% of their patients. Silk sutures used in patching the defect interfered with the heart’s electrical impulses, causing abnormally slow rates that were not sufficient to carry a patient through recovery.

While external pacemakers existed to help regulate heart rhythm, they were bulky, relied on external electrodes, and had to be plugged into a wall outlet. These AC-operated pacemakers could fail during a power blackout.

So Dr. Lillehei and his colleagues set out to develop a better system with the help of Medtronic engineers. Earl developed a new kind of pacemaker that was not much larger than a paperback book. He borrowed parts from other electrical devices he had in the shop. For the new device’s circuitry, he relied on a design for a transistorized metronome he had seen in a trade publication. When finished, he produced a pacemaker that was powered by mercury batteries, provided a 9-volt DC pulse, and could easily and comfortably be worn by young patients.

The original Bakken pacemaker was tested in the University of Minnesota’s laboratory. The following day, it was applied to a pediatric heart block patient. The effect was instantaneous. The pacemaker immediately restored the child’s heartbeat to near normal. Within days, the child’s heart resumed a normal rhythm on its own, and the pacemaker was removed.

The development of the wearable, external, battery-powered pacemaker amounted to a leap forward in the treatment of heart block and other cardiac problems. It also signaled the beginning of a new era in the therapeutic application of electrical stimulation for patients around the world.

Earl Bakken, who is now in his 80s and living on the Big Island in Hawaii (where they have a public holiday in his honour) is still an inspirational character.  He was interviewed as part of a series on Life Changing Science on ABC Radio’s The Science Show back in 2003 and the transcript is worth a read. You can also visit his official website here, or join the Earl Bakken Rocks My World Facebook page. Share Button

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