Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken remembered for innovation in medical field

Minnesotans are remembering the contributions of medical technology innovator Earl Bakken, who passed away over the weekend. 

"It’s a sad day, but it’s also a day to reflect on a remarkable man," said Michael Sanders, Bakken Museum executive director.

From the time Bakken was a young boy, he had a fascination with electricity and the body. When he was eight years old, Bakken snuck into the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights to watch the horror classic Frankenstein. Years later, it would help inspire his greatest invention: the portable pacemaker.

"It really cannot be overstated the impact Earl Bakken had on people's health worldwide,” said Sanders. 

Bakken founded Medtronic with his brother-in-law in 1949 in a garage in northeast Minneapolis to repair electronic medical equipment. When a 1957 power outage in the Twin Cities led to the death of a child on a pacemaker that plugged into a wall outlet, University of Minnesota cardiac surgeon Dr. Walton Lillehei asked Bakken to come up with a battery-operated version to stop any further loss of life.

"Dr. Lillehie went to Earl Bakken and said, ‘Can you come up with something better?’ and Earl went back to his garage in northeast Minneapolis and invented the first portable pacemaker," said Sanders. 

Medtronic eventually became the world's largest medical device company with 86,000 employees around the world. But ever the Minnesotan, Bakken never sought the limelight.

“Every day someone is coming up to me thanking me for saving their life or their uncle or their grandparent of their child. I didn't do it. That's the employees,” said Bakken in an interview in 2007. "We have 7,000 employees working here. It’s a very fulfilling career to be in."

Bakken also founded the Bakken Museum in south Minneapolis to get young people excited about science and technology and inspire the next generation of innovators to come up with an invention, like he did. 

"He's this enormous figure,” said Sanders. “This lion of the medical technology and medical innovation. He was also this humble man who wanted the world to be better and was just trying to do his part to make that work."