September 29, 2011
Wilson Greatbatch Pacemaker Inventor Dies
Wilson Greatbatch, the inventor of the implantable pacemaker, died Tuesday at the age of 92, in Buffalo, New York. His cause of death is unknown, but family members report that his health had been intermittent. He was preceded in death by his wife, who died in January of this year and is survived by three sons and a daughter, another son predeceased him, the Telegraph reports.
Greatbatch was not the inventor of the pacemaker or of the implantable pacemaker, he only improved on its design. The first implantable pacemaker was installed into a human body in 1958, and only lasted three hours. But Greatbatch, an electrical engineer by trade, had been commissioned by Buffalo, New York´s Chronic Disease Research Institute to build an oscillator to record heartbeats.
While he was finishing up the device he installed the wrong resistor value into an oscillator circuit and instead of producing a steady oscillation it created an uneven signal with a quick pulse followed by an interval in which the transistor was cut off and drew nearly no current. He recalled, “I realized that this was exactly what was needed to drive a heart.”
After this incident he quit his job and opened a workshop in his garage to become a full time inventor. In 1958 he was approached by William Chardack, a Buffalo Veterans Administration Hospital surgeon. According to the Telegraph, Greatbatch asked him if he was interested in a pacemaker the size of a matchbox that would fit under the skin. Dr. Chardack apparently replied, “If you can do that, you can save 10,000 lives a year.”
A few weeks later a pacemaker was implanted into a dog. Then on June 6 1960 one of the pacemakers was installed into a 77 year old man with an irregular heartbeat.
The Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker was not necessarily the best pacemaker or the first, but it succeeded in the American marketplace the best. Of the first devices installed, 10 had wire breakages, five had premature battery failures, one had an electric component failure and three caused infections. The pacemaker was then licensed to Medtronic, a Minneapolis company that became the world leader in pacemakers, in 1961.
Greatbatch didn´t stop at the pacemaker. In the early 1970´s his new company, Greatbatch Ltd., developed newer lithium-iodine based batteries to be used in pacemakers. The Telegraph notes that the new lithium battery technology provided a safe, reliable and long-lasting power source that negated the need for regular surgery to replace the batteries in the devices.
Still Greatbatch didn´t stop inventing. He totaled more than 325 patents in his lifetime. Near the end of his life, he was working with nuclear fusion, which utilizes a type of helium found commonly on the moon.
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