A prolific inventor who died last week in upstate New York at the age of 92, Wilson Greatbatch is credited with more than 325 patents, including coming up with the first practical implantable pacemaker.
Besides being memorialized for those breakthroughs, he truly should be viewed as an inveterate tinkerer who as much as any single individual represents the very best of what that term means to medical innovation.
While the invention of the pacemaker is what caught the attention of headline writers in the nation’s newspapers (The New York Times, for instance, cited him as “Pacemaker Inventor” in the headline on its page-leading obituary), Greatbatch’s historic role in healthcare is even more rooted in his development of a long-life lithium battery, importantly impacting the longevity of implantable devices.
Wilson Greatbatch truly epitomized the “tinkerer” genre. The story of how he came to invent the implantable pacemaker is a case in point. In 1956 he was working on building a heart rhythm recording device for the Chronic Disease Research Institute at the University of Buffalo, where he was an assistant professor of electrical engineering.
As the New York Times story noted, one day “he reached into a box of parts for a resister to complete the circuitry on the cardiac recorder. The one he pulled out was the wrong size, and when he installed it, the circuit it produced emitted intermittent electrical pulses.”
One can almost picture the proverbial light bulb going on above his head. As was noted in a memoir published in 2000, Greatbatch immediately associated the timing and rhythm of the electrical pulses with the beating of the human heart. With his research interest piqued by the fortunate happenstance that had just occurred, he began experimenting to organize an electrical-stimulus device that could be both small enough and reliable enough for implanting in a human.
The first implantation of a test device in a dog came in 1958, and after further work 10 successful implantations were made in humans in 1960. In 1961, the product was licensed to a then-fledgling Minneapolis firm. Becoming the manufacturer of the pacemaker set Medtronic down a path to become the largest medical device-centered company in history.
Greatbatch turned his attention to addressing the critical issue of battery life in the pacemaker, which initially was powered by conventional zinc-mercury batteries with a life of just two or three years, requiring yet another surgical procedure for replacement. He acquired rights to a lithium iodine design invented by Baltimore researchers and reengineered it into a compact package that could power an implanted device for 10 years or more.
In 1970, he founded Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. The Clarence, New York-based company that carries his name also carries his pioneering work forward as the pre-eminent provider of such medical power components, and today, as Greatbatch Inc., has evolved beyond its cardiac rhythm management beginnings to producing technologies for the orthopedic, neuromodulation and vascular access markets.
A native of Buffalo, Greatbatch became interested in electronics while working as a Boy Scout in the small amateur radio station on a Sea Scouts ship. A story in The Buffalo News noted that “Even in his advanced years, Mr. Greatbatch . . . was still tinkering with new inventions and discoveries -- from a cure for AIDS using genetic engineering to a nuclear-powered spaceship to send people to Mars.”
His daughter, Anne Maciariello, told the Buffalo newspaper, “When I talked to him a month ago, he had all kinds of projects he wanted to work on. He never stopped.”
Greatbatch was a man of faith who served as an elder at Clarence Presbyterian Church, where he also sang in the church choir and taught Sunday school. According to The Buffalo News, he often had one particular observation on the role of a higher power in determining one’s place in life: “I don’t think the good Lord cares whether you succeed or fail, but he wants you to try hard.”
The newspaper said that general message had become one of Greatbatch’s signature themes, and he often passed along the advice to the younger generation. “Never avoid doing anything because you fear it won’t work,” he told University of Buffalo engineering students two decades ago. “You shouldn’t look only for success or peer approval. You should just do your work because it’s a good thing to do.”
As worthwhile words to live by, those are pretty hard to top.
(Jim Stommen, retired executive editor of Medical Device Daily, is a freelance writer focusing on healthcare issues.)