WNY's All TIme Greatest Invention: Implantable Cardiac Pacemaker
Photo by Robert Lewis
Before there was Steve Jobs’ garage, there was Wilson Greatbatch’s wood-heated workshop in the barn behind his Clarence home. There, in the late 1950s, he designed and developed the first practical implantable cardiac pacemaker—an invention that has extended the lives of millions worldwide and is credited as marking the birth of today’s medical device industry.
Born in 1919 and raised in West Seneca, Greatbatch was a classic American tinkerer and innovator. He had his ham radio license by age sixteen and, following service as a radio man in the Navy, he received his electrical engineering degree from Cornell. The university’s animal behavior farm introduced him to the combination of electronics and physiological responses. As an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, he stumbled upon an intermittent pulse sequence following the accidental use of an incorrect resistor. He recognized the sequence as one that could regulate the human heart, and he soon teamed up with Dr. William Chardack, chief of thoracic surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital (VA) in Buffalo, and Dr. Andrew Gage, an old high school classmate, in the race to build an implantable pacemaker.
Greatbatch sought to create a device that didn’t require constant recharging (as existing external pacemakers did) and, by virtue of being totally implanted, could not be accidentally disrupted by the wearer. In 1958 he set aside enough money to feed his family for a couple of years, quit his jobs, and dedicated himself full-time to the pacemaker. He used $2,000 he had saved to design and build by hand fifty pacemaker prototypes and models, doing most of his work in the barn behind his house. “We had no grant funding and asked for none,” Greatbatch later remarked in his memoir, The Making of the Pacemaker. “We got fifty pacemakers for $2,000. Today, you can’t buy one for that.”
On April 7, 1960, at the VA, Greatbatch, Chardack, and Gage successfully implanted a pacemaker in a seventy-seven-year-old man who went on to live thirty months. As Kirk Jeffrey notes in his history of cardiac medical devices, Machines in Our Hearts, its vastly superior design and practicality for the US market eclipsed the model that preceded it, and the Buffalo-born pacemaker lit up the medical community. Greatbatch quickly patented his device, and the following year he and Chardack licensed their pacemaker to Minneapolis-based Medtronic. “That agreement,” Seymour Furman writes in the foreword to The Making of the Pacemaker, “effectively began the modern medical device industry.”
Greatbatch’s profound impact on the business, engineering, and medical worlds grew, and he never stopped inventing. He obtained over fifty US patents (he still had one pending when he passed away in 2011) and more than 300 international patents. He formed a company (now Greatbatch Inc.) to adapt the lithium iodine battery, with its significantly longer lifespan, to the pacemaker. In 1984, the National Society of Professional Engineers proclaimed his invention among the top ten most important engineering contributions to society over the preceding fifty years. Greatbatch was later inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame and received the US National Medal of Technology. Today, more than half a million pacemakers are implanted each year.
Yet Greatbatch always remained humble. As he advised the innovators and inventors of tomorrow at numerous commencement speeches, “Don’t crave success—the reward is in the doing.”
Jay Pawlowski is grateful to Wilson Greatbatch for the nine years and counting he has had with his mother thanks to a pacemaker.