Arne Larsson, a Swedish heart patient who received the first implanted pacemaker more than 40 years ago, has died at 86.
Larsson died Dec. 28 of skin cancer at his home in the Stockholm suburb of Saltsjoe-Duvnaes, his wife, Else-Marie, said Tuesday.
Prepared to die in 1958, Larsson always credited his persistent wife and the pioneering spirit of his doctors for what he called his “new life.’
“He knew that without the pacemaker, he would have died when he was 43 years old,” Else-Marie Larsson said in an interview.
Arne Larsson’s operation on Oct. 8, 1958 in Stockholm was done to treat a heart block condition known as Stokes-Adams syndrome, which slows the heartbeat and decreases blood flow to the brain.
The pacemaker was implanted by Dr. Ake Senning, a cardiac surgeon, and developed by Dr. Rune Elmqvist, a medical device engineer. It used two transistors and was the size of a hockey puck.
The device used tiny shocks to return Larsson’s heart to 70 beats per minute. But within five hours, the history-making pacemaker stopped.
Senning implanted a second pacemaker that Elmqvist had built, and Larsson was out of the hospital within two weeks.
The operation sparked a moral debate on whether mechanical devices should be placed in the human body to sustain life.
“We were more realistic about how thin the thread is between life and death,” Else-Marie Larsson said of her husband. “His love for life was to the end.’
Larsson became ill in 1956, after contracting hepatitis from eating tainted oysters. His health problems developed into Stokes-Adams syndrome, a condition that decreases blood flow to the brain. There was no cure.
As he suffered daily convulsions and losses of consciousness, his wife learned of a machine that could control a patient’s heartbeat. She went to her husband’s surgeon with the information.
“My wife attacked the doctor night and day. She said, ‘Doctors, you must do something.’ At last they say, ‘What can we do?”’ Larsson recalled in 1998 during a visit to St. Jude Medical in Minnesota, which took over the Swedish company that made the first implantable pacemaker.
Since his first operation, Larsson had received 26 pacemakers but led an active life and appeared at many clinical meetings as an ambassador for the pacemaker industry.
On Oct. 8, 1998, Larsson rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his implant.
Pacemaker technology has advanced dramatically since the first implant. Current devices are as small as a half dollar and use computer technology, advanced sensors and the equivalent of up to 500,000 transistors. Pacemakers are prescribed by physicians to more than 500,000 patients worldwide each year, according to St. Jude Medical, which is based in suburban St. Paul.
“Arne’s life was saved and an industry that now provides life-enhancing technology to millions of people around the world began on that day,” said Terry Shepherd, St. Jude’s chief executive.
Larsson is survived by his wife; their two children, Bjoern and MaLou; and six grandchildren.
A funeral is scheduled for Jan. 29.