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His Invention Will Save Millions of Lives

"Dr. John Hopps"

I was sitting next to man on a plane when the subject of the pacemaker came up. I happened to mention that the heart pacemaker was invented by a Canadian. The man turned to me and said, quite brusquely: "the hell it was!" Seems he had had one installed in New York and he was sure an American or a Swede had invented it.

I told him I had just interviewed one of the men who had invented the pacemaker and had the tape in my briefcase. He was then convinced, but still a bit skeptical. It's this ambivalence that still clouds the story behind the invention of this wonderful device which has saved so many people's lives and continues to keep people around the world living useful lives. Strangely enough, it also keeps its originator on the go too. I am talking about Dr. John Hopps of the National Research Council where the pacemaker was developed and where it got its name.

"There's always been a bone of contention surrounding the 'invention' of the pacemaker," Dr. Hopps says. "In truth, no single one invented it. However, ours was the first of its kind. In1950, we at NRC were collaborating in a hypothermia study by Dr. W.G. Bigelow at the University of Toronto. Dr. Bigelow observed that a cold heart could be triggered into activity by a mechanical or electrical stimulus. We developed a device to maintain or activate the heart beat as an adjunct to that investigation.

"We called our device a pacemaker after nature's own pacemaker, the sinoatrial node which normally organizes the heart's rate. It appeared to be a good descriptive name for the device. Subsequently, other devices designed to control the heart beat were called pacemakers.

"Those were good times for research in Canada. I doubt very much if the pacemaker would be developed today, that's how much times have changed. Things then were much more flexible. Now our science is so circumscribed with the desire to assist industry that there is little pure research being done in the country today, particularly by the government.

"The happenstance that led to the development of the pacemaker at the

N.R.C. was that we had the resources of many different divisions: biochemistry, physicists, life scientists, our own electrical engineering technology and the science library. All these in one place.

"The financial cost of the pacemaker was minimal. I can't think of anywhere else in Canada where the resources were available to make this a possibility at the time. And certainly not today. "

A conservative estimate of the number of pacemakers in use in North America alone is 500,000. Dr. Hopps and his brother are two of the users!

"I had no idea when I was making my contribution to the development of the pacemaker that one day I would owe my own life to it! As for my brother, I wrote and demanded that he pay me a royalty, but he refused to cough up!" He said it with a smile.

Many people who learn about the pacemaker for the first time have misconceptions about the installation procedure and the length of time the unit will operate without having to be replaced.

"On the average, a pacemaker will last 10 years before it has to be taken out and a new one installed. It is a minor surgical procedure. The pacemakers today are designed so that the patient can go to a pacemaker clinic every

year where it can be determined very readily what condition the unit is in: its probable life; condition of its batteries and whether it's performing and doing its job properly. A patient really should have no concern about a pacemaker suddenly stopping on them.

"The development of the transistor was what fueled the expansion of the pacemaker. When the transistor came along it made electrical circuitry so that the unit could be enscapulated within the body. So it became a practical technique. The installation is quite simple and can be performed under a local anesthetic in a special procedures suite or in the operating room. A lot of patients say they would rather have a pacemaker installed than go to the dentist! The replacements can often be done as an outpatient procedure. "

In 1987, Dr. John Hopps was awarded the "Order of Canada" for his contribution toward the development of the pacemaker. How did he feel about that event in his life?

I felt very proud because I am a 100% Canadian and it gave me great pleasure to receive it. I thought it reflected the work done by the National Research Council rather than by one individual.

"But it was a great delight to me!" Dr. John Hopps ... another Canadian Achiever.

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