Earl Bakken employed a “ready, fire, aim” approach when inventing the first wearable transistorized cardiac pacemaker in the 1950s.
His namesake museum in the West Calhoun neighborhood gives young people the opportunity to take a similar approach while learning about everything from electricity to Frankenstein.
“The museum is really a reflection of (Bakken’s) interests and passions,” said David Rhees, the museum’s former longtime executive director. “People who visit will get a sense that it’s a place that is open to new ideas and really wants to help advance science in a way that helps advance humanity.”
Bakken, a Minneapolis native who co-founded Medtronic and commercialized the first implantable pacemaker, died Oct. 21 at his home in Hawaii. He was 94.
Bakken founded his namesake museum in 1975 as a non-profit foundation for his collection of medical-electrical devices and early books on therapeutic uses of electricity. He moved the museum into its current home in 1976, helping it grow from a place for his collection into a museum with exhibits and classes for young people.
Rhees, who became executive director in the early ’90s, said he was charged with expanding The Bakken’s K–12 programming and attracting new visitors when he started the role. He said he and his staff started by doing exhibitions that would have broad appeal, such as one called “Treasures of the Bakken,” and that they also expanded the museum’s field trip program.
In the late ’90s, the organization made the decision to add a new wing onto the lower part of the museum, expanding the building by about 12,000 square feet. That made it easier for the museum to operate K–12 programming and welcome the general public, Rhees said.
Nowadays, the museum has a full-time staff of 17, in addition to a part-time staff of 20, Executive Director Michael Sanders said. About 10,000 students visit the museum annually on field trips, and over 30,000 people visited it in 2017, he said.
Quiet but passionate
Rhees first met Bakken when The Bakken Museum conducted a national search for a new executive director in 1992. He said his first impression of Bakken was that he was “very much the stereotypical Norwegian” who was quiet and not particularly demonstrative in his emotions.
Still, Bakken “had a lot of passion for the things that mattered to him,” Rhees said, noting science, education and health care as examples. “When it came to those topics, he could become very animated and passionate.”
Rhees said Bakken remained “keenly interested” in the museum even after he retired to Hawaii in 1994, noting his generous financial support for it. He said Bakken was very proud of the work the museum staff did to get kids interested in science, noting that the museum became a home away from home for some kids.
“Every time he came back into town, he just loved sitting down and talking to young people,” Rhees said.
Rhees also noted the connection the museum has made with the neighborhood in recent years, in part because of its fieldtrip program. The museum has become firmly embedded in the community, he said, hosting a polling place and West Calhoun Neighborhood Council meetings.
Sanders, the current executive director, said he visited Bakken in Hawaii several times after taking over in 2015 and that he also had semi-regular FaceTime meetings with him.
Bakken was interested in a broad range of subjects and didn’t mind exploring the fringes of science, Sanders said. He always had a stack of books on his desk and had become especially interested in putting women in leadership roles, Sanders said.
“He was convinced politics and corporate leadership would be better if more women were involved,” Sanders said.
A self-described nerd, Sanders said Bakken was quiet about but proud of his accomplishments. He noted Bakken’s work with the native Hawaiian community, which included founding the North Hawaii Community Hospital, and he said Bakken was proud of the impact he had on peoples’ health.
“He would tell people that if they felt they had received extra years of life, they should try and give back,” Sanders said, noting his Bakken Invitation awards program.
Bakken gave millions of dollars to charities for years, Sanders said, and was always giving his staff credit for any successes. He said Bakken was interested in expanding access to science and technology, an interest that drives The Bakken Museum’s outreach program in schools.
The Bakken Museum includes 11,000 books and 2,500 artifacts, Sanders said, from early pacemakers to a natural history manuscript from the year 1280. The museum isn’t actively seeking out new objects for its collection, though it works with people who may be interested in donating objects, he said.
Justin Spencer, the museum’s associate director of education for youth and family programs, said he was blown away by Bakken’s kindness and empathy as well as his desire to solve problems.
Spencer said Bakken would always talk with kids about using science skills to make the world a better place.
It’s an idea around which Bakken appeared to base his life. According to Medtronic, a minister had told a teenage Bakken at his confirmation in 1937 to “use science to benefit humankind.” Bakken said he recognized later that that was his spiritual calling.
A University of Minnesota graduate, Bakken did part-time work repairing delicate lab equipment at Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis during grad school, according to Medtronic. Demand for his services grew, and eventually Bakken and brother-in-law Palmer Hermundslie formed the company.
The duo built relationships with doctors at university hospitals in Minneapolis in the early years, eventually meeting a staff surgeon named C. Walton Lillehei, according to Medtronic. Bakken developed the first pacemaker at Lillehei’s request in 1957, and he and Hermundslie reached a licensing agreement with the inventors of the first implantable pacemaker about three years later. The company expanded rapidly in the following years and now employs over 86,000 people around the world.
Sanders said Medtronic’s growth was always around the idea of helping people, noting its expansion into medical technology beyond pacemakers. He said Bakken wanted to make sure that everyone saw Medtronic’s mission, which had not changed since 1960, and that he wanted Medtronic employees to see his Hawaiian estate.
The museum has provided an opportunity for many Medtronic employees to volunteer as mentors and coaches for youth, Michael Hill, vice president of corporate science, technology and clinic affairs at Medtronic, said in an email. He said he’s used the museum several times for off-site staff meetings to discuss strategy, innovation and creating meaningful innovations.
“This atmosphere and location enhances the day of reflection and strategy of what is important and why we strive to fulfill the Medtronic Mission of contributing to human welfare,” he wrote.
Bakken’s life inspires a lot of what happens at the museum, Sanders said. He added that the museum would be breaking new ground with its exhibits and reintroducing itself to audiences in future months and years.
“The best way to honor Earl is to do what The Bakken does better and do it for a long time,” Sanders said.