John Bravis

The First Full-Time Employee of Medtronic Passes Away

John Bravis played a key role in creating the world’s first external, battery-powered pacemaker.

Minneapolis – Jan. 18, 2017 – The very first full-time employee at Medtronic, a member of the so-called Garage Gang and a man who played a key role developing the world’s first external, battery-powered pacemaker, passed away earlier this month.

The Original Garage Gang, circa 1958

The Original Garage Gang, circa 1958

John Bravis, 90, of Columbia Heights, Minn., died on Jan. 2, 2017. He was “employee number three” at Medtronic, joining the fledgling company in 1952.

Co-founders Earl Bakken and Palmer Hermundslie were employees one and two. They were among the handful of people known in Medtronic history as The Garage Gang; original employees who started with the company when it still operated out of a Minneapolis garage.

Bravis was a technician who built the circuitry and machinery designed by Earl Bakken that became the world’s first external, battery-powered pacemaker in 1957. He used parts found around the garage to help make it work.

The Garage Gang in 2011

The Garage Gang in 2011

Front: Earl Bakken, John Bravis. Back: Dale Blosberg, Louis Leisch, Earl Hatten, Norman Hagfors

“We almost went under in those first three or four years,” Bravis recalled in 2007, at a Medtronic 50th year celebration of the pacemaker. “I even loaned them money, about a thousand dollars at six percent interest. I think looking back now I would have said ‘keep the money I’ll take the stock,’” he laughed.

Bravis worked in a variety of technical and managerial positions at Medtronic before retiring in 1987.

As a young electronic technician he did television repair work and helped install a 50,000 watt transmitter at WDGY radio in Minneapolis. Then, through a cousin of company co-founder Earl Bakken, he found work at Medtronic, helping service and repair not only medical equipment in local hospitals, but also, in those early years, televisions. Bravis soon enrolled in physiology and anatomy classes at the University of Minnesota. “It helped a lot working with the doctors,” Bravis told historian and former director of the Bakken Museum David Rhees in 2011.”We taught them electronics and they taught us medicine.”

John Bravis

John Bravis, 2011

Bravis said he and his Garage Gang colleagues had no idea they were making medical history. “Years later somebody told us,” he recalled in 2011. “I said, ‘We did? We are?’ It didn’t occur to us at the time.”

Bravis was also a life-long musician. He told Rhees that he majored in music at what was then known as the Minneapolis School of Music. He played his saxophone professionally for more than 60 years and was a regular in the Twin Cities big band and jazz scene. He was a long time member of The Chamberlain Big Band Orchestra and other local jazz combos. 

Earl Bakken and John Bravis

Earl Bakken and John Bravis

Medtronic employees #1 and #3

John Bravis and his wife Jean lived in Columbia Heights, less than three miles from the original Medtronic garage.  When his health declined in recent years, the device he helped create played a role in his recovery. He suffered heart failure in 2016 and doctors implanted a pacemaker. “Absolutely yes it was a Medtronic pacemaker,” said his daughter Julie, “and he responded extremely well.” But he had other health issues as well, and on January 2, 2017, he died of complications from bladder cancer.

In lieu of flowers, memorials to the Independent Cancer Research Foundation (cancertutor.com) or Handiham.org., are preferred.