The pacemaker has saved millions of lives, including the man who invented it. Seriously, how weird is that? A guy invents a gadget that keeps a dying heart beating, which then saves the lives of millions of strangers over a couple of decades and then, forty years later, his invention saves his own life.
In 1949 two Canadian doctors, Dr. William Bigelow and Dr. John Callaghan, working at the Banting and Best Institute* laboratory in Toronto, were experimenting with extreme cold as a way to better conduct open heart surgery by slowing the human heart. Along the way they determined they needed a device to restart the heart when and if it stopped.
Canada has a pure research facility, a “blue sky lab” in Ottawa where scientists can work on anything they can get government funding for, it’s called the National Research Council. At the same time Bigelow and Callaghan were researching extreme cold and heart surgery in Toronto, Dr. John Hopps, an electrical engineer, was a researcher at the NRC working on using radio frequencies to restore body temperature in hypothermia victims. During this research he discovered that the heart could be artificially started using electricity.
The two physicians found Hopps and the three men worked together and found that by “applying a gentle electrical stimulus to the heart would not only duplicate the normal body nerve stimulation but it would also not cause any damage to the heart muscle. In addition, this technique would start a stopped heart and increase or decrease the heart rate, as required.”
The first cardiac pacemaker was fully developed by 1950, and basically took over the hearts electrical system, artificially pumping blood through the body. It was mostly an external device that operated similar to today’s internal pacemakers but weighed over three pounds and had to be plugged into the wall. It was not meant to be a permanent solution.
The first human to have one of these devices implanted was in 1958. It was the first electronic device to be implanted into the human body. Today’s pacemakers are about the size of a Toonie (a $2 Canadian coin) and, of course, fully implantable.
In 1999 the pacemaker was chosen as one of the five most significant Canadian engineering accomplishments of the 20th century by “National Engineering Week”. The other four were the Confederation Bridge, the Canadarm, the Transcontinental Railway Rogers Pass project (which my grandfather was a project manager for) and the IMAX motion picture system.
Hopps spent most of his engineering career as the head of the NRC’s Medical Engineering Section of the Division of Electrical Engineering. Under his leadership, this group produced a variety of inventions to help the blind, to assist people with muscular disabilities, and to advance the diagnostic uses of ultrasound. He and his colleagues also developed technologies that built upon his early cardiovascular research. In 1984 Hopps had a pacemaker implanted to regulate his own heartbeat. Hopps passed away on November 24, 1998.
*Banting & Best, Canadians, “invented” insulin.
Just a quick warning about the comment section… for some reason the entire population of Colombia took exception with this piece. Or at least some Trolls had some fun, but so did I. Enjoy.