Senning was born September 14 1915. He didn’t want to become a physician, wanting to be an engineer instead, but it somehow happened. After watching some open heart surgeries, however, he found his passion and trained as a cardiovascular surgeon.
The surgeon he watched, Clarence Crafoord (a hero by himself), would become his mentor in 1948 and, recognising Åke’s talents, Crafoord allowed him to experiment on means to implant pacemakers. In Rune Elmqvist, a former physician who did go on to become an engineer, Senning’s secret passion, he found the perfect partner.
In 1957 he made history for the first time, but not as an engineer or with a pacemaker, but by performing the first successful repair of a congenital heart defect in which blood vessels are transposed called TGA.
Scantly a year later, he and Elmqvist were back, this time with their implantable pacemaker. Subsequent pacemakers lasted longer and longer, leading to the models you know today.
In 1969, having been the head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Universitätsspital Zürich for eight years, he performed the first heart transplant in Switzerland.
Senning spent his final years, from 1985 to 2000, relaxing, teaching, and despite a long illness being a good sport about it when younger physicians asked for autographs or came calling for advice. He’s remembered not just as the father of the Senning Procedure [PDF] (that’s the TGA one) and implantation of the first pacemaker, but also as an extremely nice person who abhorred celebrity antics and fame mongering.
When he was interviewed about his first transplant, he humbly suggested that “Man muss nur nähen. Und wenn man weiss, wo man nähen muss, ist es kein Problem” (“All you have to do is suture. If you know where to suture, you’ll be fine.”)
Picture: Senning, Elmqvist, and Craaford. Credit: Ann Thorac Surg. 2004 Jun;77(6):2250-8.