Amidst the flurry of cardiology research of the 20th Century, an unlikely champion emerged in the form of an electrical engineer named Wilson Greatbatch. On an auspicious day in 1956, with no prior medical experience, he stumbled upon a discovery that would later become the implantable pacemaker.
At the time, a patient could die from the slightest heart problem. For instance, a natural slowing of the heart rate, cardiac standstill from a surgery, or from any other interruption of the organ’s normal rhythm. Researchers were also flummoxed by “heart block”, where the electrical impulses generated by the heart do not travel effectively through the surrounding tissue. Arguably a spectator to these issues of medical science, Greatbatch was focused on helping the Chronic Disease Research Institute build a device that could simply record the motion of the heart. While building such a circuit at the University of Buffalo, NY, he serendipitously grabbed a silicon transistor that was many times more powerful than expected. The momentous result was a circuit that pulsed with the undeniable “lub-dub” of a healthy heart. Having had the challenges of his medical counterparts on the periphery of his mind, Greatbatch surmised that such a device might be used to direct and stabilise the beating of ailing hearts.
Many of his contemporaries had already identified the utility of pacemakers, however inventions up to that point were riddled with issues. Either they were external to the patient, functioning by way of wall outlets, or in the case of the Swedish engineer Rune Elmqvist and cardiac surgeon, Åke Senning, they only lasted several weeks before needing to be replaced. Thus, armed with his new discovery, Greatbatch set out to develop his silicon transistor-powered circuit into a viable pacemaker. Faced with reticence from his employer, the inventor forged ahead, using USD 2000 of his own capital and a modest location in a barn workshop to perfect his prototypes.
His self-belief was rewarded when in 1958 he captured the interest of William Chardack, the Chief of Surgery at the Buffalo Veterans Administration Hospital. Together with Dr. Andrew Gage, Greatbatch and Chardack initially experimented on animals to refine the pacemaker’s design and utility. Greatbatch’s unrelenting tinkering resulted in 50 handmade devices, 10 of which were finally implanted into human patients in 1960. That year, he received a patent for the world’s first implantable pacemaker, and just one year later Medtronic shrewdly scooped up the rights to manufacture and market the “Chardack-Greatbatch Implantable Pulse Generator”. A true inventor at heart, Greatbatch continued to innovate, and ultimately developed lithium batteries that extended the lifespan of his pacemaker by years.
He passed away in 2011 at the age of 92, and his organisation, Greatbatch, Inc. remains a leading producer of implantable lithium anode batteries. There are millions of individuals around the world whose lives are immeasurably improved by pacemakers, and hundreds of thousands of new patients undergo the procedure every year. Modern day versions resemble miniature computers, with sophisticated monitoring, communication and automation capabilities. Perfection, however, is a long way off and researchers continue to make discoveries about the mysterious physiology of the human heart. Besides his passion for creative engineering, Greatbatch illustrates that miraculous discoveries often materialise when we are open to an outsider’s perspective.
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