Essays

Essays October 2018

Mourning a Man who Saved Millions

Neil Fraser

Remembering Earl Bakken, a pioneer in the field of biomedical engineering, a healthcare visionary, philanthropist, and co-founder of Medtronic.

Canada’s healthcare sector is mourning a loss.

Earl Bakken passed away on October 21st at the age of 94. He was a visionary, a philanthropist, a pioneer in the field of biomedical engineering and my mentor. During his lifetime, Earl Bakken did more for health innovation in Canada and globally than I could ever put into words.

Earl was the co-founder of one of the largest and most successful medical technology companies in the world — but he wouldn’t say it that way himself. He was evidently brilliant and still one of the most humble, kind and generous men I have ever known.

While Earl was from Minnesota, he had long and deep ties to Canada and the ground-breaking research that was being developed here in the middle of the last century. The work of Wilfred Bigelow and John Callaghan at Toronto General Hospital led to Earl’s creation of the first ever battery-powered transistorized pacemaker. He then took the idea of pacing and applied it to other areas of the body to address conditions like Parkinson’s and neuropathic pain.

His commitment to improving healthcare saved millions of lives around the world and helped millions more enjoy a better quality of life.

Companies are everywhere. They make things, and then they sell things. But it was Earl, and his commitment, that made Medtronic so much more than that to those who worked with him. Medtronic may be thought of primarily as a medical device company, but Earl never lost sight of the human dimension of care. He was focused on Medtronic’s Mission, unchanged since he crafted it in 1960 — to contribute to human welfare by application of biomedical engineering in the research, design, manufacture and sale of instruments or appliances that alleviate pain, restore health and extend life.

Canada was a natural choice for Medtronic when the company began to grow, becoming the first subsidiary outside the US in 1968. Earl spent a lot of time here visiting hospitals, touring our healthcare system and meeting with patients. I had the privilege of travelling with Earl on customer visits – he was quiet, self-assured, a good listener, and always presented the Mission card, which he carried in his wallet.

He became a personal friend to countless Canadian customers and employees, many of whom would travel to visit him in Hawaii after he retired.

True to his humble nature, he didn’t seek the spotlight about his role as an innovator, even as his company’s reputation and footprint grew. But his belief in his work was evident — Earl himself benefitted from the technology he helped create, crediting his pacemaker, insulin pump, and heart stent to extending his life by at least a decade.

His passion and commitment have become personified in his company. The impact of his life is unquantifiable, his effect on the world immeasurable. Because even in death, his work continues. And his legacy lives on at Medtronic.

About the Author

Neil Fraser is the President of Medtronic Canada

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