Greatbatch, Wilson 1919-

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GREATBATCH, Wilson 1919-

PERSONAL: Born September 6, 1919, in Buffalo, NY; son of Walter Plant (a building contractor) and Charlotte Margaret (Recktenwalt) Greatbatch; married Eleanor Wright, January 1, 1945; children: Warren Dee, John Leslie, Kenneth Alan, Anne Katherine. Education: Cornell University, B.E.E., 1950; University of Buffalo (New York), M.E.E., 1957. Politics: Republican. Religion: Presbyterian. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening.

ADDRESSES: Home—5935 Davison Rd., Akron, NY 14001. Office—Greatbatch Enterprises, Inc., 10510 Main St., Clarence, NY 14031. Agent—c/o Publicity Director, Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Dr., Amherst, NY 14228-2197.

CAREER: Engineer and inventor. Worked various jobs related to radio and electrical engineering, 1940s-50s; University of Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, assistant professor of electrical engineering, 1952-57; adjunct professor the University of Buffalo and Cornell University. Chronic Disease Research Institute, circuit designer, c. 1956. Wilson Greatbatch Ltd., Clarence, NY, founder, 1970—; Greatbatch Gen-Aid Ltd., founder, president, and research director. Adviser to Biophan Techologies, Rochester, NY; holder of more than 240 patents. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1940-45, dive bomber, rear gunner, and teacher in Navy radar school.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee, Akron, OH, 1986; National Medal of Technology from President George Bush; named Western New York's Inventor of the Year, 1994; Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996; cowinner, Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, National Academy of Engineering, 2001; Gaudete Medal, St. Bonaventure University, 2001; honorary degrees from four universities.


The Making of the Pacemaker; Celebrating a Life-saving Invention, Prometheus Press (Amherst, NY), 1999.

SIDELIGHTS: The critical moment in Wilson Greatbatch's invention of the pacemaker, according to an article in the Technology Review, came when the electrical engineer was in his lab at the University of Buffalo, New York, in 1956, using some early silicon transistors to build a circuit to help the nearby Chronic Disease Research Institute record fast heart sounds. When Greatbatch accidentally put the wrong resistor into the circuit, the sounds he heard were those of a normally beating heart. He had already been aware of the difficulty of a problem known as "heart block," which occurs when the heart's natural electrical impulses do not travel properly through tissue. As he recounts in his 1999 book The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Life-saving Invention, Greatbatch shared his discovery with William Chardack, chief of surgery at the Buffalo Veterans Administration Hospital, and on May 7, 1958, after working together for two years, the two men successfully implanted the first pacemaker model into a dog. The device shorted out after only four hours, however, because the dog's bodily fluids leaked past the electrical tape sealing the device.

Always one to learn from experience, Greatbatch recast the pacemaker in epoxy blocks. Within a year, the prototypes were lasting up to four months. Taber Instrument, Greatbatch's employer at the time, was hesitant to try it on humans, however, owing to the potential legal liability. Greatbatch left Taber and, with $2,000 of his own money, set out on his own to make fifty pacemakers in his barn workshop. Chardack then implanted the first of ten pacemakers in April, 1960. Minneapolis-based Medtronic licensed the pacemaker that same year and remains the top manufacturer of cardiac pacemakers.

As Greatbatch sought ways to extend the life of his pacemaker, he developed a corrosion-free lithium battery. The device went from working just two years to functioning up to ten years. In 1960 he established his own company, Greatbatch Enterprises, in Clarence, New York, which remains the world's largest manufacturer of implantable lithium batteries.

Greatbatch's first job after World War II was laying phone lines for the New York Telephone Company; in addition he was also a new husband. He decided to go to Cornell's School of Electrical Engineering but encountered difficulties in registering; Greatbatch solved this problem by using the ingenuity that would characterize his long career. "They wouldn't admit me at Cornell," he recalled. "There was room in the school, but no housing for nonresident students. So I went out to Danby, six miles south of Ithaca, and bought a farm. Then I came back and presented myself as a 'resident student.' I got in."

In an interview with Tracey Drury for Business First of Buffalo, Greatbatch said: "I don't get interested until people tell me things are impossible." His accident at the University of Buffalo may have led him directly to the invention of the pacemaker, but the idea for the device, Greatbatch told Drury, came to him much earlier. "I found out about the disease and knew I could fix it in 1951. I couldn't do anything for the pacemaker; it was before transistors. All we had were vacuum tubes and storage batteries, and it would have looked funny trying to sew a storage battery up inside of somebody," he noted.

Inventing the pacemaker is not the only story Greatbatch has to tell. He has been working since the late 1980s on a cure for AIDS and received an award in 1996 for a test-tube method he developed in the course of that research. Greatbatch's work with AIDS had stalled at the test tube stage by 2002. As he told Drury, "We've managed to block the replication . . . in test tubes, but we never got up to the animal level. We kept running into problems, and running out of money."

His more recent efforts to create nuclear fusion with a type of helium found only on the moon had him predicting that the trip to Mars, which now takes eight months with chemical rocket engines, will someday be made in a weekend using new fuels and nuclear fusion rockets.

As a proud member of in the Inventors Hall of Fame, Greatbatch attends the induction ceremony every year—on one condition. Louise Forsch, a member of the induction team in Akron, Ohio, told Drury that Greatbatch will attend only "if he can come to the schools and visit children. Every year we line up five schools, and he talks to the kids and tries to inspire them to get into scientific careers and tries to let them know it's not just for nerds."

Catherine Saint Louis interviewed Greatbatch for the New York Times Magazine column "What They Were Thinking," and he told her: "People often ask me what's been the most important accomplishment in my life. I have 240 patents now. But I think it's that I've had the opportunity to speak to over a thousand fourth-graders about the pacemaker. In 1960 I invented the implantable pacemaker. The problem with it was that it had a metal wire, so people who had a pacemaker couldn't get MRIs. This year we replaced the wire with a glass fiber. I tell them how it works, draw a picture, get down to the technical. When you hear how a pacemaker works for the first time, it sounds like a dream. But it's not. I think it's important to get them thinking."

In an interview with Jane Kwiatkowski for the Buffalo News, Greatbatch conveyed some predictions for the future: there will be clean, unlimited electrical power through nuclear fusion with helium-3; there will be entire implantable medical systems, not simply artificial hearts; and bioengineering contributions in molecular biology and its research into the structure of the human genome will lead to the development of drugs that are "rationally designed rather than from testing millions of jungle plants."



Buffalo News, April 25, 1999, Jane Kwiatkowski, "From a Scientist and Inventor, a New World of Possibilities," p. F2; January 14, 2001, Louise Continelli, "Father of Inventions Wilson Greatbatch to Be Honored for Greatest Contribution," p. B2; March 5, 2001, "Bona Names Four to Receive Gaudete Honor," p. B3; November 24, 2001, David Robinson, "Greatbatch Helps Develop New Type of Pacemaker," p. E1.

Business First of Buffalo, February 6, 1995, David Debo, "Greatbatch Takes Home Inventor Honors for Drug," p. 4; September 8, 1997, Tracey Drury, "Inventor Pursues the Unknown," p. 1.

Choice, June, 2001, I. Richman, review of The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Life-saving Invention, p. 1823.

New York Times, December 9, 2001, Catherine Saint Louis, "What They Were Thinking," p. 34.

Technology Review, September, 2001, "Setting the Pace: Wilson Greatbatch's Implantable Pacemakers," p. 96.

Washington Times, Kristina Stefanova, "Russ Prize Rewards Pacemaker's Creators," p. 10.


Smithsonian Institution, Lemelson Center InventionFeatures,, 2002), John Adams, "Making Hearts Beat," February 5, 1999.

Wilson Greatbatch Technologies, Inc. Web site,, 2002).