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John "Jack" Hopps: The father of biomedical engineering in Canada

by Loren Bonner, DOTmed News Online Editor | November 16, 2012
From the November 2012 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

In 1958, Swedish doctors successfully implanted the first pacemaker in a human—a medical milestone that would not have been possible without Canadian electrical engineer Dr. John “Jack” Hopps. Among his many contributions to the field of biomedical engineering, Hobbs is most recognized for developing the world’s first external artificial pacemaker in 1951, a device that paved the way for the implantable pacemaker.

Hopps was born on May 21, 1919 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Shortly after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Manitoba in 1941, he joined the National Research Council in Canada (NRC), and stayed there for most of his career. At NRC, Hopps and his colleagues, Dr. W.G. Bigelow and Dr. J.C. Callaghan from the Banting and Best Institute in Toronto, began experimenting with methods on canine cardiac pacing. Based largely on delivering electrical impulses with an electrode to the region of the sino-atrial node, Hopps, Bigelow, and Calahan presented the external pacing technology to a meeting of the American College of Surgeons. Results from their experiments with the device were published in Annals of Surgery in 1950.
The pacemaker device that Hobbs is credited with inventing is quite different from the one we know today, which is very small and can be implanted under a patient’s skin. Hobb’s device had two lead wires, worn by the patient on a belt, and would be plugged into a power outlet on a wall. Nevertheless, it served as a model for the innovations in pacemaker technology that spanned the decades.

Hobbs continued to lead groundbreaking research at NRC after his breakthrough with the external pacemaker, spearheading inventions that assisted the blind, those with muscular disabilities and with advancing the diagnostic uses of ultrasound.

In addition to his scientific achievements, Hopps also helped the field of biomedical engineering become the profession that it is known as today. In 1965, he founded the Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society and then became president of the International Federation for Medical and Biological Engineering in 1971. He also served as secretary general of the International Federation and as general chairman of the International Conference on Medical and Biological Engineering. From 1985 to 1988, Hobbs became secretary general of the International Union for Physical and Engineering Science in Medicine.

In an ironic twist of fate, Hopps received an implantable pacing device for his own heart condition in 1984. The device lasted thirteen years and was replaced in 1997. The following year, Hobbs passed away on November 24th.

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