Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 18
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  • Holmes, Curt
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    WILSON GREATBATCH, inventor of the first implantable cardiac pacemaker and holder of more than 325 patents, passed away on September 27, 2011, at the age of 92 in his home in Williamsville, New York. In addition to the pacemaker, his prolific career of invention included the creation of along-life lithium battery used in medical implantation devices, contributions to AIDS research, alternative fuel experiments, and a solar-powered canoe.

    For his inventive contributions he was honored with induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1986, election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1988, selection for the 1990 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, presented by President George H.W. Bush, and receipt of the 1996 Lemelson MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Houghton College in 1970 and from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo in 1984.

    And he was a member of several professional societies, including the British Royal Society of Health, American College of Angiography, and American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a fellow of the Institute of Electronic Engineers. He was an active mentor and often spoke to engineering students at various levels about invention. He advised one audience, “Nine things out of ten don’t work. The tenth will pay for the other nine,” stressing the importance of perseverance.

    He counseled an audience of Clarkson University students, “Don’t fear failure. Don’t crave success. The reward is not in the results, but rather in the doing.” Born on September 6, 1919, in Buffalo, Wilson Greatbatch was the only child of Warren, a construction contractor from England, and Charlotte Recktenwalt Greatbatch, a secretary who named their son after President Woodrow Wilson.

    As a boy he was interested in radio technology, and he later used his skills in shipboard communications and guidance systems in the Navy and then as a telephone repair technician before he pursued undergraduate studies. He was honorably discharged from the US Navy after World War II and, with assistance from the GI Bill, enrolled in Cornell University, where he earned a BEE in 1950. He completed his education with a master’s degree, also in electrical engineering, from SUNY Buffalo in 1957.

    Greatbatch started his career as manager of the electronics division of the Taber Instrument Corporation in Buffalo, and began experimenting with pacemaker implant models. Because Taber did not support his research, he continued the work independently, setting up an electronics workshop in the barn behind the Clarence home he shared with his wife, Eleanor Wright Greatbatch—his childhood sweetheart and a home economics teacher whom he married in 1945—and their five children: Anne, John, Kenneth, Peter, and Warren.

    In 1956 he was working as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at SUNY Buffalo when he had his first breakthrough in experimentation with the university’s Chronic Disease Research Institute. While building a heart rhythm recording device, he reached into a box of parts for a resistor. Happenstance drew him to choose the wrong size, and when he installed it the resistor emitted intermittent electrical pulses that he recognized as remarkably similar to the human heartbeat.

    Drawing on his expertise in radio frequency, he surmised that heart block occurred because of the body’s inability to deliver critical signals to the heart. It was, he said simply, a failure of communication. He then began experimenting with methods to shrink the materials and to protect the device from body fluids. On May 7, 1958, doctors at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo tested a two-cubic-inch model of Greatbatch’s design and successfully controlled canine heartbeat.

    Greatbatch returned his focus to a practical human implant and discovered that other American research groups were racing alongside him to produce the first pacemaker. He redoubled his efforts, drawing on $2,000 in savings and enlisting his wife Eleanor’s assistance in the administration of shock tests for the device’s transistors by taping them to a bedroom wall. He collaborated closely with Dr. William C. Chardack, surgical chief at the VA Hospital, where the device was initially tested, and Dr. Andrew Gage. In 1960 the team implanted Greatbatch’s pacemaker in ten human patients, including two children.

    The following year, Greatbatch sold the licensing rights to Minneapolis-based Medtronic, which had developed an external pacemaker, and went on to serve the company as a consultant for many years. In 1968, troubled by the short life of the zinc-mercury batteries used in the original pacemaker, Greatbatch acquired the rights (from a Baltimore-based research team at Catalyst Research Corporation) to a lithium-iodine-polyvinylpyridine design that extended the average battery life of a pacemaker from two to ten years.

    He licensed the technology, recruited a team of battery scientists, and in 1970 founded Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. (now known as Greatbatch). The company quickly became a power-component supplier for the medical device industry and expanded into related businesses based on Greatbatch’s oft-stated belief, “History has repeatedly shown that when a new method or material becomes available, new uses for it arise.”

    By 1972 he had reengineered the pacemaker into a compact sealed package and his company had become an international enterprise that produced implantable batteries, commercial industrial lithium batteries, medical devices, and related components. He chronicled his career and research in his 2000 memoir, The Making of the Pacemaker.

    In 1985 he left his company to dedicate more time to other research interests. In conjunction with research partner John Sanford at Cornell University, he made progress against the replication of the AIDS virus in cats.

    In 1983 the National Society of Professional Engineers selected Greatbatch’s pacemaker as one of the top two engineering contributions of the last half-century. Today, nearly one million pacemakers are installed annually worldwide, changing the life expectancy of recipients to nearly that of the average human extension.

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