Beating hearts: John Alexander Hopps and the pacemaker

By Rebecca Meunier

Quick! Think of five inventions that have revolutionized the way we live.

Now try to think of five Canadian medical inventions. Not so easy, is it?

Why is it that most of us are able to think of five inventions that have helped to shape the world we live in, such as the wheel, but struggle to name even two Canadian medical inventions?

Though we might have the impression that countries such as the United States or England have the upper hand when it comes to the total number of medical inventions, we must not forget that Canada has long been a leader in the advancement of healthcare across the world. Some Canadian inventions include the discovery of insulin by Sir Frederick Banting; the invention of Pablum, an enriched infant cereal; and cobalt therapy.

There is one Canadian medical invention, however, that outshines all others. It has the power to make your heart beat steadily when you exercise and even when you are in love. That invention is the artificial pacemaker. Canadian electrical engineer John Alexander Hopps is credited with the invention of the artificial pacemaker (also known as the stimulator-defibrillator), and it is through Hopps’s work with Dr. Wilfred Bigelow and Dr. John Callaghan that the device first began to save lives.

A black-and-white photograph of an operating room scene with four men in surgical gowns and masks gathered around a prone patient who is hidden from view.

Dr. John Hopps in the background overlooking an operation in an operating theater, undated (MIKAN 3588818)

John Alexander Hopps was born in Winnipeg on May 21, 1919. He graduated in 1941 from the University of Manitoba, where he had studied electrical engineering. He then worked at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa on wartime radar development. In 1949 he was assigned to work in Toronto with Dr. Bigelow, who had recently discovered that there was a reduced risk of complications if, before an open-heart surgery, the patient was kept in a state of hypothermia. His work with Dr. Bigelow and Dr. Callaghan led to the development of the cardiac pacemaker in the 1950’s—a device that, though he did not know it at the time, would help prolong his own life. From 1957 until 1958 Hopps worked in Sri Lanka, helping to establish the first colonial engineering unit in Southeast Asia. Fifteen years later, in 1973, he became the head of the NRC’s new Medical Engineering Section. He continued to work on new medical innovations and became a leading voice for the importance of hospital safety standards. He was especially concerned with the protective measures taken by hospitals to reduce the risk of operating room electric shock hazards.

Hopps’s unique knowledge of technology and medicine brought him into contact with all kinds of challenges relating to technology and human health. He even wrote a research paper detailing his findings on the potential health hazards of a microwave oven used by the staff at the Riverside Hospital, concluding that there were no significant harmful effects associated with its use.

Hopps also became the first president of the Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society, and in this role continued to promote the use of engineering in the medical world.

The pacemaker that we know today looks very different from its predecessor. The world’s first pacemaker was about the size of a microwave oven and had to be placed outside the body. Over the years, countless doctors and inventors helped to shrink the size of the pacemaker so that it was eventually small enough to be placed inside the human body during a less invasive surgery.

A black-and-white photograph of a small machine with various knobs and dials. Two black wands are connected to the machine by a cord.

Operating room model of the stimulator-defibrillator (MIKAN 4997380)

The pacemaker became quickly invaluable to doctors and was included in mobile cardiac units.

A black-and-white photograph of a man wearing a lab coat, surgical mask and surgical cap. He is looking at his watch and standing next to a large machine with many drawers, knobs and wires. The machine has a sign on it that reads Mobile Cardiac Resuscitator.

Mobile Cardiac Resuscitator (MIKAN 4982761)

Black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing glasses and a bowtie.

John A. Hopps, circa 1945 (MIKAN 4997379)

In 1986, Hopps became an Officer of the Order of Canada. He died in 1998, after having permanently altered how medicine and technology interact with one another.

If you would like to read more about John Alexander Hopps and the pacemaker, you can explore his fonds, which is housed at Library and Archives Canada. Hopps’s fonds includes a wide range of materials, from textual documents relating to his work to pictures that help shed light on the evolution of the pacemaker to images of cardiac operations.


Rebecca Meunier is a student orientation technician at Library and Archives Canada.