The First Pacemaker

I heard an interesting story today from someone involved in heart surgery research, a story about the first battery powered pacemaker to be used on a human. I don't know if any aspect of this is apocryphal or not, but I can tell you that the source is pretty reliable, and parts of this story are widely repeated on the Intertubes, so they must be true.

The original pacemaker was, of course, developed here at the University of Minnesota. In fact, open heard surgery was pioneered here and a lot of other heart related research. This is also where the first (and only) human-grown heart was generated some months back when stem cells were used to seed a frame of connective tissue to grow a brand new heart from scratch. I guess the University of Minnesota is Heart Central. UMN heart hearts.

So, this early pacemaker was a big huge thing that the patient would have to push around like a shopping cart. In those days, the pacemakers would be installed in one part of the research hospital, and the patient would then be moved to a different part of the research hospital, and this process was facilitated by having a 300 foot long extension cord plugged into one place so the pacemaker did not have to be unplugged while the patient was moved from the surgery to his or her room.

One day the power went out in the hospital and some guy on a pacemaker died. Bummer.

This difficulty caused Walton Lillehei, the inventor of the pacemaker, to seek a solution by way of a battery powered pacemaker. He approached a guy who owned a small company that had been contracted to maintain some of the electronic equipment in the research hospital and asked him if he could develop a battery powered device. The man he approached to work this out was Earl Bakken. The small company Bakken ran was Medronics. The rest is history.

But that's not the story I wanted to tell.

So, Bakken developed this pacemaker using the newly invented transistor, the circuitry from a metronome, and a battery, and brought it to Lillehei, and Lillehei and his team got a dog, and induced damage in the dog's heart that could be treated with the pacemaker. They attached the pacemaker, and the dog seemed fine. Lillehei and Bakken went home that night knowing something very interesting and important had happened that day.

The next day, Bakken returned to the hospital to see how the pacemaker was working, and was shocked and dismayed to find out, when he visited the lab ... the very lab, by the way, where I was told this story earlier today ... to find that the dog had died. Bummer.

Bakken quickly learned, however, that the dog had died because Lillehei had removed the pacemaker from the animal and installed it on a critically ill child upstairs in the hospital. The child was doing fine, and the first use of the pacemaker on a human had commenced using the original prototype, literally hours after the prototype was first rolled out.

Ah, the days before those pesky Human Subjects rules and regulations!

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Greg - I once worked with a couple engineering types who were with Medtronic in the "old days" you describe in your post. They "spun off" from Medtronic to develop a blood oxygenator that eventually made them all rich. Their big break came when a still very untested device was used in an emergency setting -- and to everybody's surprise and delight, the patient survived. Overnight, and with gushing publicity, their little device company became "valuable". Anyway, I guess the point is that the medical device industry in Minnesota was a sort of "wild west" with big risks and big rewards.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 09 Apr 2009 #permalink

This is also where the first (and only) human-grown heart was generated....

Well, if you want to be technical, aren't all our hearts human-grown? ;)

Yea, I was looking at one of those today. I was disappointed to learn that it does not run Linux.