Medtronic plc announced that its co-founder, Earl E. Bakken, passed away on October 21 at his home on Kiholo Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. He was 94 years old.
“Today, we are saddened by the passing of Earl Bakken, but we also honor and will forever cherish the life of a beloved man whose brilliance and vision have improved the lives of millions of people around the world,” says Omar Ishrak, Medtronic chairman and CEO. “The contributions Earl made to the field of medical technology simply cannot be overstated.”
In 1949, Bakken founded Medtronic with his brother- in-law, Palmer J. Hermundslie. Before retiring as chairman in 1989, Bakken led Medtronic for 40 years, guiding the company’s growth.
Born in Columbia Heights, Minn., Bakken graduated from high school in 1941 and enlisted in the Army Signal Corps where he served in World War II as a radar instructor. After leaving the Army, he attended the University of Minnesota, earning a degree in electrical engineering. While a graduate student, Bakken did part-time work repairing delicate lab equipment at Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Demand for these services grew, and on April 29, 1949, Bakken and Hermundslie formed a business partnership. They called the company Medtronic, with its headquarters in a modified garage in northeast Minneapolis.
While installing and servicing devices used during early open-heart surgeries, Bakken and Hermundslie built relationships with physicians at University Hospitals, Minneapolis. The late C. Walton Lillehei, a young staff surgeon at the time, was pioneering procedures to help “blue babies” born with often-lethal heart defects. Following a power outage in the Twin Cities that caused the death of an infant, Lillehei asked Bakken to find a solution.
Bakken responded by building the world’s first wearable, transistorized pacemaker. He adapted a circuit described for an electronic transistorized metronome in the magazine Popular Electronics. This milestone is viewed by many as the “birth” of Medtronic.
In December 2007, at age 83, Bakken became the first recipient of an honorary medical degree from the University of Minnesota, recognizing his contributions in the medical field. During his life, he also received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Hawaii, Tulane, and the Albany College of Pharmacy. In 1995, Bakken was named to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame and received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota in 1981.
In 1984, his cardiac pacemaker was named one of the 10 most outstanding engineering achievements of the last half century by the National Society of Professional Engineers. And in 2014, Bakken received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Advanced Medical Technology Association.