John "Jack" Alexander Hopps, P. Eng.
Canada’s Father of Biomedical Engineering Invents External Pacemaker
As a pioneer of biomedical engineering best known for inventing the world’s first artificial pacemaker, John Hopps, P.Eng., has been instrumental in advancing an innovation that has helped millions of people with cardiac conditions worldwide.
Jack Hopps, date unknown. (courtesy National Research Council of Canada Archives)
It wasn’t heart health that originally prompted the research efforts of the electrical engineer from Winnipeg–it was beer. In the 1940s, the University of Manitoba graduate was working at the National Research Council Canada (NRC) in Ottawa, studying the pasteurization of the beverage using radio-frequency, or microwave, re-warming. While at the NRC, he also worked on a variety of other electrical and radio projects, including wartime radar development. In 1950, Hopps’ expertise in radio frequency heating found practical use in the medical sphere when he joined a research initiative at the Banting Institute at U of T. Researchers Wilfred Bigelow and John Callaghan were studying how hypothermia slows the human heart rate, and they invited Hopps to help them find a mechanical or electrical approach to restart a stopped heart.
Drawing on his expertise in radio frequency heating, Hopps created a bipolar catheter electrode that could stimulate a heart’s lining without the need to open the patient’s chest. The device used vacuum tubes to generate 60 Hz of electrical current that were delivered to the heart through an insulated wire inserted through the jugular vein. Hopps’ invention was about 30 cm long and several centimetres high and wide, so it worked strictly as an external device. However, it was the precursor to smaller pacemakers that emerged with the advent of transistors and more reliable batteries. In 1957, the first pacemaker was implanted in the chest of a Swedish man and, since then, has evolved into a common medical device that has had a profound impact on the quality and longevity of life for many people, including Hopps himself, who received two such implants, one in 1984 and one in 1997.
In 1957, Hopps took a one-year leave of absence from the NRC to pursue a professional opportunity as a consultant for Columbo Plan, an organization that promotes economic and social development of countries in the Asia-Pacific Region. Working in Sri Lanka, he helped establish an electromedical division for the country’s government health service. Upon returning to NRC, he became involved in enhancing hospital care and safety in Canada, and helped design the first integrated electronic hospital operating room in Canada and an intensive care ward monitoring system.
In 1973, Hopps became head of NRC’s medical engineering section, and from then until his retirement in 1979, his team conducted further cardiovascular research, and also invented assistive medical devices to help the blind, enhance the diagnostic uses of ultrasound, and support people with muscular disabilities.
Hopps was a champion of biomedical engineering, who helped promote its growth in Canada. In 1965, he founded and became the first president of the Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society. He also helped lead the International Federation for Medical and Biological Engineering, serving as its president in 1971 and as its secretary general from 1976 to 1985. As well, Hopps was president of the Ottawa Chapter of the Ontario Heart Foundation, and chaired the Canadian Standards Association’s Committee on Patient Care Safety.
Hopps’ contributions to biomedical engineering and to human health earned him several distinctions. In 1986, he was made an officer of the Order of Canada; in 2005, he was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. In June 2008, his invention of the pacemaker was recognized by IEEE Canada with a Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing, which honours significant technical achievements in all areas associated with IEEE.
In 1995, Hopps published his autobiography, Passing Pulses–the Pacemaker and Medical Engineering: A Canadian Story. About a year before his death on November 24, 1998, he commented about his enthusiasm about the evolution of the pacemaker, saying that he was “constantly amazed at how technology” had refined the device he helped to create so many years ago.
References and Further Reading
- The above content was published in "Heroes for the Ages, Ten extraordinary engineers who made their mark on history", Sharon Aschaiek, Nicole Axworthy, Jennifer Coombes, Michael Mastromatteo, Professional Engineers Ontario, March/April 2013
- Engineering History Paper No. 40 “Recognition of Engineers and Engineering Achievements: The Hall of Fame of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology", Andrew H. Wilson (previously produced as Cedargrove Series #11/2009 – November 2009)
- Canadian Encyclopedia Posting accessed on February 28, 2023 https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/john-a-hopps
Glen N. Cook, P. Eng. (SM), FEC