The Bionic Man

Earl Bakken invented the battery-powered pacemaker in 1957. Today his invention keeps his own benevolent heart beating
Story by Tiffany Edwards-Hunt. Photos by Sarah Anderson.

Earl Bakken was 85 years old in 2009 when a surgeon at North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea slipped a silver-dollar-size pacemaker beneath the skin covering his rib cage and threaded a tiny electrode through a vein to his heart.

Under general anesthesia and wide awake during the procedure, Bakken was accustomed to being on the receiving end of implantable medical devices. He’d already had stents inserted into his coronary arteries as well as a portable insulin pump connected to his abdomen. And this wasn’t his first pacemaker; he’d had that one put in eight years earlier, and he had outlived its battery. Now he was back for a replacement.

Bakken is intimately familiar with implantable medical technology not only because his body contains so much of it. As the inventor of the transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker in the 1950s, Bakken is the man who ushered in the era of miniaturized electronic implants in medicine. Along the way he saw the two-man medical electronics company he started with his brother-in-law in a Minnesota garage grow into a multinational giant with eighty-seven thousand employees and $17 billion in revenue last year. That company, Medtronic, makes devices that have eased the pain and extended the lives of millions of people around the world, Bakken included. He is 91 now, and his second pacemaker is still ticking away. “Medtronic is keeping me alive,” he says.

Earl Bakken helped found Medtronic — now one of the world’s largest medical technology firms — in his brother-in-law’s suburban Minneapolis garage in 1949. He invented the first battery-powered, wearable cardiac pacemaker in 1957. Above, Bakken and his personal assistant Susan Pueschel review the day’s schedule.

There is something faintly Frankensteinian about the inventor whose company grew to monstrous proportions by using little zaps of electricity to keep human beings out of the grave. Bakken happily points this out, even referring to himself on occasion as Dr. Bakkenstein. But if the Frankenstein story is about the misguided application of biomedical technology, Dr. Bakkenstein’s story is about using such technology for the betterment of mankind.

And lately his story has become about encouraging people who are given “extra life” to do good things with the time. This was on Bakken’s mind as he lay in the OR in 2009 having his pacemaker replaced. He thought about the bonus years that he and all the other medical device recipients around the world had gained. And he had an epiphany: People should not be sitting around watching TV. They should be using their extra life to do good.

He left the operating room that day with both a new pacemaker and an idea for a program to honor medical device recipients who dedicate themselves to good works. The result is Medtronic’s “Live On, Give On” program, which picks ten honorees a year, gives $20,000 to the nonprofit group of their choice and brings them to the Mauna Lani Resort for an awards dinner with Bakken.

Tricia Caughey-Doyle is the mother of one of the 2014 recipients, Clint Doyle, who uses a Medtronic defibrillator. Clint, who is 27 and has a developmental disa-bility, teaches painting classes to children who also have developmental disabilities. The classes are held through a nonprofit his mom founded. Caughey-Doyle recalls meeting Bakken at the awards dinner. “He hugged me and said, ‘Do not stop doing this good work,’” she says. “When I have bad days, that echoes in my head.”

When I visit Bakken at his home, he rolls up to greet me in an electric wheelchair, accompanied by a nurse and Susan Pueschel, his cheery personal assistant of the past twenty-seven years. Bakken retired as CEO of Medtronic in 1976 and stepped down as chairman of the board in 1994. Today his business card reads “Founder and Director Emeritus,” and his duties mostly involve signing certificates of service for Medtronic employees who have reached their twentieth year of employment with the company.

Bakken Hale, as Bakken’s estate is called, is located on the shore of aquamarine Kīholo bay. Outside the house, Bakken’s personal chef pulls up to greet us in a golf cart with his Labrador retriever along for the ride. Bakken Hale’s whole staff of nurses, cooks and groundskeepers bring their dogs to work. The only rule is that nobody let Bakken’s own dog Kai outside without a leash. He has signs posted all over the place reminding people of this.

Architecturally, Bakken’s seventeen-thousand-square foot mansion is an anomaly; it looks more like a well-kept Minnesota motor lodge than anything else on the Kona coast. It’s got a swimming pool, a tennis court and even a ballroom. It’s also entirely off the grid. The water is produced by a reverse osmosis system that makes seawater drinkable. The electricity, at the moment, is produced by propane-fueled generators. During my visit Bakken is in the process of converting his propane system to a solar electric system. It’s a massive project involving 512 photovoltaic panels and forty-six eco-friendly saline batteries the size of washing machines—enough to keep Bakken Hale brightly lit even after three days of overcast skies. The project’s scope is unprecedented for a residential dwelling in Hawai‘i. After it’s finished Bakken hopes school groups will come to see it. “He just keeps coming up with new dreams,” says Pueschel.

When I ask Bakken about this landmark solar conversion, he says a few things about his carbon footprint and about how noise from the propane generators bothers his houseguests and the nearby beachgoers. Then he hands me a report filled with facts and figures about the project. Bakken is a man of few words these days, but he is very well-organized, and he’s surprisingly adept at producing folders and binders full of information in response to my questions.

Helpfully, Bakken Hale itself answers questions, too. The tour Bakken gives me of his house is like a walk through a museum. There are mementos and keepsakes everywhere, each with little typed placards explaining their significance. A hallway is lined with display cases filled with scores of accolades, awards and honorary degrees. Entire rooms are set aside for old radios and model trains from his childhood. Here and there, dolls of Frankenstein’s monster sit on shelves.

Born in 1924 in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, Earl Elmer Bakken was fascinated by electricity and all the plugs, wires and connectors it involved from the time he could crawl. Somehow surviving his earliest years free from electrocution, Bakken grew up as a precocious and inventive child. As a boy he built a rudimentary telephone system to talk with a neighbor kid across the street. He built a crystal set radio into his bed so he could surreptitiously listen to Amos ’n’ Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly when his parents thought he was sleeping. He built a robot that could blink its eyes, puff cigarettes, brandish a knife and—through a speaker used as a mouth—say things in Bakken’s own voice. In high school he introduced to his classmates a kiss-o-meter designed to measure the intensity of kisses. He also built an early version of the Taser to fend off bullies. It delivered a zap of twenty-thousand volts; Tasers today deliver around sixty-thousand volts, so the bullies were getting off easy.

Bakken loved the movies as a child, especially horror movies involving mad scientists using electricity to make people invisible, supernaturally strong or changed in some other amazing way. But it was Frankenstein with Boris Karloff that really seized his imagination. He was nine years old when he first saw it, and he still hasn’t gotten over the experience.

Born in 1924, Bakken developed a lifelong interest in electronics at a young age. Entire rooms of Bakken Hale are set aside for old radios, model trains and early inventions from his childhood. Above, Bakken shows off his ham radio set.

Before I visit Bakken Hale, a copy of Bakken’s autobiography, One Man’s Full Life, arrives in my mail. Bakken sent it to me for background, and undoubtedly to spare him from having to answer a lot of questions about himself. In it Bakken writes that what intrigued him most about Frankenstein “was not the monster’s rampages, but the creative spark of Dr. Frankenstein’s electricity. Through the power of his wildly flashing laboratory apparatus, the doctor restored life to the unliving.” Being more of a good Minnesota Lutheran kid than a mad scientist in the making, Bakken had discussions with a minister about the story’s implications. With the minister’s encouragement, Bakken resolved that his pursuit of science would be for the betterment, not the detriment, of mankind.

Bakken served as an airborne radar maintenance instructor during World War II, then studied electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Upon graduating he went into business with his entrepreneurial brother-in-law Palmer Hermundslie. Medtronic, the company they founded in the Hermundslie family’s kerosene-lit garage, calibrated and repaired the electronic medical devices that hospitals were just starting to adopt. Among Medtronic’s clients was University of Minnesota Hospitals, where the pioneering heart surgeon Dr. C. Walton Lillehei worked. Lillehei used the early generation of cardiac pacemaker to help with the recovery of his open-heart surgery patients, who included babies born with heart defects. It was an unwieldy piece of equipment that plugged into the wall. After a blackout put Lillehei’s patients at risk, he approached Bakken about making a battery-powered device.

Initially Bakken planned to mount Lillehei’s existing pacemaker on a cart along with a car battery, an inverter and some other components. Then he recalled an article he saw in Popular Electronics that had a diagram for the transistorized circuit of a metronome. It was battery powered, kept a regular beat and was a lot smaller than a cart. Four weeks later Bakken handed Lillehei an aluminum box the size of a thick slice of bread—the first transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker.

On our tour of Bakken Hale, Bakken parks his wheelchair in front of a display showing the evolution of the pacemaker. It starts with the original prototype Bakken handed to Lillehei, a metal box four inches square and an inch and a half thick. The display stretches through time to the tiny model that keeps Bakken’s heart ticking today. I ask to see the actual pacemaker Bakken uses, and he unbuttons his aloha shirt and pulls aside the ornaments hanging from his neck: a Knighthood of St. John pendant, an enormous Hawaiian fishhook and a Bluetooth device connecting his smartphone to his hearing aid. I touch the coin-size lump on his chest and ask him whether it hurts. “No,” is all he says, with a wry smile. The meaning of that smile seems obvious me: It’s keeping him alive.

Since moving to Hawai‘i Island in 1989, Bakken has poured millions of dollars into projects that promote health, wellness and education in the community. When I ask him about these good works, he hands me a fat white binder titled “Hawai‘i Island, Healing Island—Health and Wellness Works.” It’s a dossier of the causes he’s supported, including North Hawaii Community Hospital; the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center; Nā Kālai Wa‘a, an educational Hawaiian voyaging canoe program; The Kohala Center, a research and conservation organization; Tutu’s House, a health and wellness center for adults; and Earl’s Garage, which offers kids classes and workshops on a variety of scientific topics, including—of course—electricity.

These days Bakken likes sitting on the lānai outside his bedroom overlooking the turtle-filled bay. Mounted on the wall above the door to the lānai is an ihe laumeki, a barbed Hawaiian spear. It was presented to him on his ninetieth birthday by his friends in the Royal Order of Kamehameha, a fraternal and benevolent organization. Membership is limited to Hawaiians, but Bakken earned the rare distinction of being inducted as an honorary member.

A few days after visiting Bakken, I meet Ski Kwiatkowski, a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha and the man who carved Bakken’s ihe laumeki. Kwiatkowski says honorary memberships in the Royal Order of Kamehameha are reserved for non-Hawaiians who make significant contributions to the community, and Bakken certainly fit the bill. “A lot of famous people live in Hawai‘i,” he says. “For the most part, these people don’t get involved. But Earl—wow—he immersed himself in the community. He’s a very, very special person to us because he understands what it is like to think Hawaiian.”

When One Man’s Full Life arrives in the mail, I dig in looking for insight into Bakken’s thinking. In one passage, Bakken goes back to his Frankenstein experience, explaining that many years would pass after seeing the movie before he became aware of electricity’s potential medical applications. Initially, though, there was just a nerdy kid filled with wonder in a darkened movie theater. “I was simply awestruck by the fact that electricity, properly applied, could do a great deal more than light up a room or ring a doorbell,” he writes. “I realized that electricity defines life. When electricity flows, we’re alive. When it doesn’t, we’re dead.” HH

Story by Tiffany Edwards-Hunt. Photos by Sarah Anderson