Medtronic’s Earl Bakken, AAMI and Industry Pioneer, Dies at 94

Posted October 23, 2018

Earl BakkenEarl Bakken, a driving force in AAMI’s infancy and chairman emeritus of Medtronic, a multi-billion-dollar medical technology company that he co-founded in a Minneapolis garage, passed away at his home in Hawaii on Oct. 22. He was 94.

A holder of dozens of patents and honorary degrees, Bakken’s influence on the growth of medical technology was enormous.

Bakken was “a soft-spoken giant in the industry,” said Mike Miller, AAMI’s first president and CEO. “Bakken supported AAMI from its conception. He was a member of the AAMI Executive Committee and Board of Directors for several years, supported AAMI financially, and encouraged his staff to participate in and support AAMI. I also heard that he was a very good ballroom dancer and rarely wore the same suit twice … A really nice guy.”

Miller shared the legend of Medtronic’s founding. “The story was told that a heart surgeon, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, asked the hospital maintenance engineer to come up with a device that could be used to stimulate the heart externally. In his garage, Bakken developed a device that worked well. Bakken told the surgeon that for $10,000 or some relatively nominal amount, he would make him a partner in his company to develop and sell the device. The surgeon had no interest and passed on the opportunity to own half of Medtronic. Not a good move.”

Bakken, “our dear friend and Medtronic co-founder,” led the company for four decades, retiring as chairman in 1989, according to a statement from Omar Ishrak, Medtronic chairman and CEO. “He remained a beloved figure at Medtronic” and continued to serve as chairman emeritus throughout his life. “He carried a copy of the Medtronic Mission in his wallet at all times. The words he drafted nearly 60 years ago are still the guiding principles that we work to achieve today: to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life."

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Bakken created the wearable, battery-powered pacemaker in just four weeks in 1949. Testing in an animal lab confirmed that it worked. “The next day, Bakken said he was ‘stunned’ to see the device attached to one of Lillehei’s pediatric patients. The device worked.”

Bakken also commercialized the first implantable pacemaker in 1960, according to the Associated Press. Bakken himself had an implanted Medtronic pacemaker, and other implants. “I’m on my second pacemaker, and I’m on about my third or fourth insulin pump, he told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press in December 2010. “So I’m glad I invented the company, or I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Phil Cogdill, senior director of quality, sterilization, and microbiology at Medtronic and immediate past chair of the AAMI Board of Directors, said that Bakken’s passion for advancing medical technology never ebbed.

“Even with Earl’s retirement from the company in 1994, Earl wasn’t done making a difference,” Cogdill said. “He created the Bakken Invitation. He asked patients who benefited from medical technology, ‘What will you do with your extra life?’ This translated into an award aimed at honoring those who used that ‘extra life’ to help others.”

In 2011, the AAMI Board of Directors honored Bakken with the AAMI Leadership and Achievement Award, making him only the sixth recipient of that award in AAMI's history. Board members hailed his "long and exceptional service to AAMI and the medical device industry" and a career marked by integrity and positive impact.

Ishrak said that Bakken’s legacy was considerable.

“Earl was inspired by his dreams,” Ishrak said. “By following them, he improved the lives of millions of people, built a major corporation, and established an entire industry.”