The pacemaker, an influential device that helps with irregular heart rhythms was invented by an engineer from Buffalo, New York named Wilson Greatbatch. Like most great inventions, the pacemaker came about by accident. Since then, the device has continued to enrich millions of lives around the world.

A seasoned inventor and engineer

Wilson Greatbatch was born in 1919 to British immigrant parents and later joined the US Navy in World War II as an aviation chief radioman, making use of the amateur radio license he obtained when he was 16 years old in the sea scouts. He then studied electrical engineering at Cornell University as a compensation from the 1944 GI Bill.

In 1952, two years after graduating, he started teaching electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo. Greatbatch was a veteran inventor, but the one invention tied to his name that revolutionised the medical world was the pacemaker. The birth of which, was through a fortunate blunder.

In 1956, Greatbatch was building an instrument to monitor heart sounds and had accidentally placed a transistor that was 100 times more powerful than the ones he usually used in the instrument. This resulted in electrical pulses that were akin to the pulsed rhythm of the human heart.

Quite in disbelief, he came to realise that his new “invention” could be used as a new kind of pacemaker – thus spending two years perfecting the device, and making it implantable inside a patient’s body.

Wilson Greatbatch holding a 1980s implantable pacemaker (left) and the original one, which he invented in the 1950s. Photo credit: Associated Press/NY Times
Wilson Greatbatch holding a 1980s implantable pacemaker (left) and the original one, which he invented in the 1950s. Photo credit: Associated Press/NY Times

The old pacemaker was like a chunky TV

The prototype device, which was slightly bigger than a hockey puck was first implanted into a dog in 1958. It successfully managed to control the dog’s heartbeat without problems. Another dog lived 104 days with one of the devices implanted. It was only in 1960 that the pacemaker was implanted into a human body.

The pioneer patient, a 77-year-old man, lived a further 18 months with the pacemaker implanted. Another young patient, who collapsed on the job had lived a further 30 years with the implantation of the pacemaker.

This was a remarkable milestone as prior to the miniaturisation and enabling of implantations, pacemakers were bulky external devices – hung around the patients’ necks and used to shock patients during its use. The ancestral pacemakers looked like chunky televisions that required power from wall sockets as battery technology had not been sufficiently developed to allow implantations.

The pacemakers were however, not without flaws. Bodily fluids would often permeate through the pacemaker’s protective casing and damage the electronics. Greatbatch also grew frustrated with the limitations imposed by the batteries supplying power to the pacemaker. Patients would enjoy about two years of usage before having to have the batteries replaced. This frustration led to Greatbatch researching longer-lasting battery technology.

The pacemaker paving the path for great things

Greatbatch noticed that pacemakers that had batteries filled with mercury and zinc needed to be replaced every two years. In 1970, Greatbatch established his own company, producing batteries made of lithium-iodine that were corrosion-free and lasted more than 10 years. The company, Greatbatch Inc. eventually supplied 90% of the world’s pacemaker batteries.

Greatbatch’s more recent involvements include research of HIV treatments and renewable energy sources, proposing nuclear fusion as the solution to break free from fossil fuel dependency. He held 350 patents under his name, landing him in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1986.

Deservedly, he also received the National Technology Medal in 1990 from President George H.W. Bush. Further recognising his many contributions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Award, in 1996.

The pacemaker was licensed to Medtronic, a Minneapolis-based company in 1961. Since its inception, it has paved the way for development of implantable defibrillators, diabetes insulin pumps, hip replacement and artificial limbs. Over three million people have benefited from Greatbatch’s invention worldwide and 600,000 units are being implanted every year.

Greatbatch passed away in 2011 at the age of 92 due to renal failure, noting that his successes also include being married for 60 years, raising five children and educating future generations. MIMS

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