Wilson Greatbatch: Inventor of the implantable cardiac pacemaker

Wilson Greatbatch was an inveterate inventor, with more than 150 patents to his name. He will be best remembered for the invention and development of the first implantable pacemaker, a device which has improved, saved and extended countless lives since its first use in 1960. Worldwide, around three million people currently benefit from Greatbatch's discovery, with an additional 600,000 being implanted every year.

Greatbatch was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1919, the son of British immigrants Warren and Charlotte Greatbatch. He attended school at West Seneca, joined the sea scouts and obtained his amateur radio licence at the age of 16. Following military service in the US Navy during the Second World War, as aviation chief radioman, he took advantage of the 1944 GI Bill and attended Cornell University, where he read electrical engineering. He graduated in 1950 and started teaching at the University of Buffalo in 1952.

It was in 1956, while working at Buffalo, that he made his most important discovery, the result of a fortuitous error. Working on a heart-rhythm recorder, he mistakenly added anincorrect electronic component, so that the device produced electrical pulses instead of simply recording them. Recalling the event later, he said "I stared at the thing in disbelief", having realised at once that he had found a way to electrically simulate and stimulate a heartbeat.

Before this time, pacemakers were bulky, external units which required the use of mains power, as battery technology had not yet advanced sufficiently to allow implantation. Over the following two years he managed to miniaturise and package the device, culminating in a successful demonstration of the invention in a dog, in May 1958. By 1960 the pacemaker had been implanted in the first human patient, a 77-year-old man, who went on to live for a further 18 months.

A patent for the implantable pacemaker was granted in 1962 and in 1970 Greatbatch founded Wilson Greatbatch Ltd (now Greatbatch Inc), a company which continues to develop and manufacture lithium-based batteries for pacemakers. Greatbatch himself however, despite now having extensive offices and laboratory facilities, preferred to continue his research at his home garage workshop.

In an interview with the Associated Press Greatbatch put his success down to persistence: "Nine things out of 10 don't work", he said, but emphasised that "The 10th one will pay for the other nine". When asked about the change in quality of life that the pacemaker brought, Greatbatch told his local Buffalo newspaper in 1984: "I think one of my first and most gratifying realisations of what a pacemaker could do was in observing the reactions of elderly people to their grandchildren. People with heart disease generally don't have enough blood supply to their brains and couldn't respond before to the bantering of kids."

Greatbatch was the recipient of many awards during his lifetime. In 1983 the National Society of Professional Engineers selected the pacemaker as one of the greatest contributions to society of the previous 50 years. In 1998 Greatbatch was inducted into the National Inventors' Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, alongside his hero Thomas Edison. This was followed, in 2001, by the granting of the highest honour from the National Academy of Engineering, shared with his peer Earl Bakken, who invented the external pacemaker. Greatbatch's autobiographical account of his discovery, The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Lifesaving Invention, was published in 2000.

In recent years Greatbatch had carried out research in the fields of HIV treatments and renewable energy, among others. He challenged the scientists of today to break the world's dependence on fossil fuels, which he believed will be exhausted by 2050. One of his proposed solutions was the use of nuclear fusion, using an isotope of helium found in lunar soil, suggesting that "There is more He-3 energy on the Moon than we have ever had in the form of fossil fuels on Earth. All we have to do is to go there and get it".

Greatbatch received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technologyin 1996. During the presentationceremony he urged aspiring inventors to work in the Olympic spirit, calling on them to: "Just immerse yourselfin the problem and work hard. The true reward is not in the results but in the doing."

Marcus Williamson

Wilson Greatbatch, inventor: born Buffalo, New York 6 September 1919; married 1945 Eleanor Wright (three sons, one daughter and one son deceased); died Amherst, New York 27 September 2011.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup