Remembering Earl Bakken, the "Un-Frankenstein" of Medical Technology | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
October 31, 2018
Collage of images of Earl Bakken and David Rhees

The following is the first in a series of blogs by TLI Fellow David Rhees on the life and work of Earl Bakken, a pioneer in the world of medical devices and medical technology.

Earl Bakken, a giant in medical technology and philanthropy, passed away on October 21 at the age of 94 at his home on the Big Island of Hawaii. He is best known as the co-founder of Medtronic in 1949 and the inventor in 1957 of the first wearable transistorized cardiac pacemaker. Perhaps more importantly to the long-term success of Medtronic, he was the author of the Medtronic mission statement in 1960, one of the first corporate mission statements ever written. He could also be considered the father of the Minnesota medical device industry — Medical Alley — given that Medtronic became the spawning ground for dozens of medtech start-ups, including St. Jude Medical (now part of Abbott) and Cardiac Pacemakers, Inc. (now part of Boston Scientific). His significance is reflected in the fact that his obituary has appeared in major newspapers around the country, including the Washington Post and The New York Times.

I had the privilege of getting to know Earl when I became director of The Bakken Museum in 1992 and where I served for 23 years. Earl founded the museum in 1975, one of many nonprofits that he founded and/or generously supported. (The University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing and Medical Devices Center both bear his name now.) This was the beginning of a long relationship and mentorship that culminated in my co-editing a book of interviews with Earl and with others who knew him. Dreaming On With Earl Bakken was published by The Bakken Museum in 2014 just before I retired (copies are available at the museum store). Interviewing Earl and working with him and my co-editor Susan Pueschel was one of the highlights of my career.

As a fellow at TLI, I am inspired to now pass on some of the knowledge and wisdom that Earl shared with me. It is important that young people going into the medical device industry should learn more about Earl’s life, work and thought. This essay represents the first of a series of blogs that will offer Earl’s own words to shed light on current events in the field. There was a period at Medtronic when employees began wearing badges that read “WWED?” — What Would Earl Do? Likewise, I hope to offer readers a sense of what Earl might have done or thought regarding trends and technologies in today’s medtech environment.

For today, just in time for Halloween, I want to close with sharing a part of Earl’s personal story that doesn’t always make it into the official biographies — how he was inspired as a child by the movie Frankenstein to study electrical engineering and apply it to medical needs.

Earl was only eight years old in 1932 when he and a friend rode their bikes down to the Heights Theatre on Central Avenue in Minneapolis to see Boris Karloff as the monster in the James Whale-directed film. Earl always insisted that, rather than being turned off by the gruesome and impious mad-scientist story, he instead focused on the positive potential of electrical technology to renew and extend life. I doubt that many people “read” the film that way (his friend actually laughed throughout the show). Even as a child, Earl was able to look beneath the surface of the film and see the larger meaning.

I find it deeply symbolic that Earl passed away during the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, the subject of a global celebration. Not only that, but the Guthrie Theater was just then celebrating the 30th anniversary of Barbara Field’s adaptation, Frankenstein — Playing with Fire. In homage to Earl, I went to see the play a week after he passed, on its last night. At the intermission, I was pleasantly surprised to run into a recent graduate of TLI’s Medical Device Innovation program, who was excited to learn about the story that inspired Earl Bakken. And that’s very appropriate because Mary Shelley’s story of her “hideous progeny”, as she called it, still offers many profound questions for those who hope to use medical technology to help people. Victor Frankenstein began his unholy quest to create a man initially out of the pain of losing his mother. Where did he go wrong?

You will find such profound questions addressed in two exhibits at The Bakken MuseumFrankenstein’s Laboratory (a visitor favorite since 2001) and the more recent Mary and Her Monster. I took my six-year-old grandson there last weekend during The Bakken’s Halloween celebration, and I can testify that he will always remember that visit! Frankenstein is still alive and well at the museum that Earl founded, helping young and old alike ponder big questions about medical technology — and perhaps delight in a shiver of fear and horror, too!

We can all be grateful that instead of running screaming out of that movie theater in 1932, Earl instead became motivated to eventually create a whole new field of medical electronics and an industry that has transformed modern medicine and benefited humanity in countless ways. He became what Victor Frankenstein wanted to be but failed at — the "Un-Frankenstein" of modern medical technology.

Rest in peace, Earl.

TLI Fellow David Rhees is a historian of science and medicine specializing in medtech for Minnesota and beyond. He was the executive director of The Bakken Museum for 23 years and led the expansion of the museum into an award-winning center for science education and for historical research on the medical applications of electricity. He holds a Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

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