Wilson Greatbatch, the man who invented the first effective implantable pacemaker, died in the town he was born in, Buffalo, New York. Greatbach was 92. The first successful cardiac pacemaker was implanted in a human in 1960.

A pacemaker is a medical device that uses electrical impulses to control hearth rhythm, or to reproduce a heart rhythm. An implantable pacemaker, or internal pacemaker has electrodes that go into the heart, the circuitry and power supply are implanted internally. There are various types of pacemakers. All of them are designed to treat a heart rate that is too slow – bradycardia. A pacemaker may work all the time to stimulate the heart into a fixed rhythm, or at a higher rate during physical exertion. Pacemakers may stimulate the heart if they detect too long a pause between heartbeats.

Pacemaker GuidantMeridianSR
A pacemaker, scaled in centimeters

Greatbatch’s implantable pacemaker varied from earlier decies in using primary cells (mercury battery) as the source of energy. The first patient to have one implanted survived for a further 18 months.

Last year sales of implantable pacemakers in the USA alone exceeded $1.7 billion.

Nobody, except probably his immediate family, know what Greatbatch’s cause of death was. The BBC reported that his son-in-law had explained that his health had been “intermittent”.

Greatbatch has held over 150 patents. He was a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and had once received the Lemelson-MIT Prize. He was presented with the National Medal of Technology by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Wilson Greatbatch (right), 2000, at Princeton Forrestal Village. Image from IEEE

  • Name – Wilson Greatbatch.
  • Date of birth – September 6, 1919.
  • Died – September 27, 2011.
  • Place of birth – Buffalo, New York, USA.
  • He attended public grade school in West Seneca.
  • World War II – aviation chief radioman. He received an honorable discharge in 1945.
  • Cornell University – graduated with a B.E.E. in electrical engineering in 1950.
  • State University of New York at Buffalo – Master’s degree (MSEE), 1957.
  • He also held honorary ScD degrees from the State University of NY at Buffalo, Clarkson University, and Roberts Wesleyan College.
  • Professional societies: Fellow of the Institute of Electronic Engineers, the British Royal Society of Health, the American College of Angiography, and the American Association for Advancement of Science.
  • Greatbatch published over 100 papers on pacemakers and power source fields.
  • He was married to Eleanor, with whom they had five children.

Greatbatch and William Chardack designed and built the first fully implantable pulse generator in the USA. It was successfully implanted in 1960. The generator was the ancestor of a generation of mercury battery powered pacers. Greatbatch and team introduced the lithium battery as an energy source for pacemakers in 1970-72. This development greatly extended the longevity of pacemakers.

In 1970 Greatbatch founded Greatbatch Ltd, formerly Wilson Greatbatch Ltd – manufacturers of batteries for implantable pacemakers.

During his later years he was President and Chairman of the Board of Greatbatch Gen-Aid Ltd., an R&D company what provided genetic engineering assistance to agriculture and medicine. He also worked on possible cures for AIDS during his latter years.

One of Greatbatch’s most famous quotes was:

“Nine things out of 10 don’t work. The 10th one will
pay for the other nine.

Written by Christian Nordqvist