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Through the Wormhole

Photo: ©iStock.com/Trout55

In 1999 Elton John cancelled several performances due to poor health. Tests revealed he had an irregular heartbeat. In July of that year he had pacemaker surgery. He resumed
his concert schedule the next month.

Pacemakers, used routinely to regulate abnormal heart rhythms, are now taken for granted, but before 1950 cardiac patients were not so lucky.

The external pacemaker is a Canadian innovation. John Hopps, an engineer from the National Research Council of Canada, designed one of the first electronic pacemakers. Hopps collaborated with Drs. Wilfred Bigelow and John Callaghan, of the University of Toronto, who were studying how to keep the heart beating during hypothermia. 

In 1950, the researchers “paced” the heart of a dog—prompting the heart to beat regularly—using Hopps’ device, which was powered by a wall outlet and the size of a small table radio. 

Hopps’ pacemaker worked, but was too bulky to be carried by a patient.

In 1960, an implantable pacemaker invented by Wilson Greatbatch, was inserted in a 77-year-old man, who lived another 18 months thanks to the device.

Today, next-generation wireless pacemakers are being tested clinically. These devices, which are the size of a vitamin, are implanted using catheters rather than via surgery. 

Like John, about four million patients are “still standing” because of an implanted pacemaker.