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December 1999

Wilson Greatbatch
Man of the Millennium

by Joseph RADDER

Jonas Salk, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were among the great achievers of the second millennium. So is Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the implantable pacemaker.

Why then isn’t his name also a household word? Because he wants it that way. This writer has met but a handful of great people over a lifetime but never one as humble as Wilson Greatbatch.

Indeed many Western New Yorkers are surprised to learn that Wilson Greatbatch lives and has done most of his work right here in Clarence, NY. Even though his pacemaker has saved hundreds of thousand of lives and “made millions of dollars for a lot of people,” he lives a simple life with his wife of 54 years in a small, red brick 19th century school house about 18 miles from downtown Buffalo.

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Bill & Eleanor Greatbatch in 1961, about the time the first
pacemakers were being implanted.

The huge Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. Battery-manufacturing plant in Clarence has very comfortable executive offices but Wilson shuns them, preferring a simple office in his garage workshop. When we visited him there, we couldn’t help but notice the clutter that often surrounds genius...papers and books piled everywhere and walls crowded with citations, awards, diplomas and pictures. His desk is really a door resting on two filing cabinets and bookshelves are planks on piles of bricks.

When one congratulates Wilson Greatbatch on his invention of the pacemaker he is quick to correct. “There were external pacemakers before I got involved,” he says. “I invented the implantable pacemaker.”

A deeply religious man, he repeatedly credits guidance from God with all of his success. “I frequently go to the Lord in prayer to ask Him what He wants me to do.”
Wilson Greatbatch, or Bill to his friends, grew up in what was then rural West Seneca. His family moved from Buffalo’s West Side when he was three years old. As a boy he enjoyed swimming in Cazenovia Creek. Bill was a Boy Scout and played left tackle on his high school football team (both offense and defense). “We were champions,” he remembers, “even though our school was small. There were only 30 in our graduating class.”

At 16 he went on a bus trip with his Boy Scout troop to Yellowstone Park and then to Colorado Springs where he climbed Pike’s Peak. “The trip took 30 days and cost us $30,” he recalls.

Early on, Greatbatch developed an interest in electronics and became a ham radio operator—passing the test for his amateur radio license at age 16. He then became a member of the Sea Scout troop at the foot of Porter Avenue, where his radio knowledge and experience served him well. “The flag pole we used as an antenna is still there,” he says.

When war threatened in 1939-1940, it was natural for Greatbatch to enter the Naval Reserve as a 3rd class radioman with the rank equivalent to a buck sergeant rating in the Army. Early in his military career, prior to the United States’ entry in the war, he was assigned to one of the first convoys to cross the Atlantic. “We had big American flags painted on the sides of our ships,” he remembers. “Somehow we were spared from attack by the Germans.” Later, after Pearl Harbor, Greatbatch participated in many missions. “ A lot of people died,” he said, “but I was spared. Apparently God had other plans for me.”

On January 1, 1945, just a few months before VE Day, Greatbatch married Eleanor—a home economics teacher who would become his first laboratory assistant. “She has always been a tremendous help to me,” Greatbatch said.

A consummate family man, Wilson Greatbatch has four living children (one son died a few years ago) and six grandchildren. Pictures of his family are squeezed between the awards on the walls of his little workshop/office.

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Mrs. Wilson Greatbatch with (left to right) daughter - Anne,
sons - John, Kenneth and Warren in 1958.

After the war Greatbatch worked for awhile as a telephone repairman. He then enrolled at Cornell University under the GI Bill of Rights where he majored in engineering with emphasis on math, physics and chemistry. “The GI Bill is one of the best things this county has ever done,” he says. While in college Greatbatch worked as an electronics technician and at the Cornell Psychology Department’s animal behavior farm. There he helped develop the instrumentation that would accompany the first monkeys into outer space.

Greatbatch had always wanted to be a teacher. So he returned to Buffalo to teach at the University of Buffalo as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. While working on an oscillator to aid in the recording of fast heartbeats, he accidentally discovered the way to make an implantable pacemaker. “It was no accident,” Greatbatch insists, “The Lord was working through me.”

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For “recreation” Mr. Greatbatch does things like developing a
solar-powered canoe which he tests here on the Erie Canal.

Greatbatch describes the event this way: “The oscillator required a 10,000 ohm resistor at the transistor base. I reached into my resistor box for one, but I misread the color coding and got a 1 megaohm resistor by mistake.” When he plugged in the resistor, the circuit started to “squeg” with a 1.8 millisecond pulse followed by a 1 second interval during which the transistor was cut off and drew practically no current. “I stared at the thing in disbelief,” he said. Wilson Greatbatch immediately realized he had discovered the way to drive a human heart.

Up to that time there had been external pacemakers made by companies like Electrodyne and the American Optical Co., but they required external power from the power line or a large storage battery (not unlike a car battery) and vacuum tubes (like those in earlier radios). Of course, any patient who was on one of these pacemakers was immobilized.

It wasn’t easy to find a heart surgeon who would believe in Greatbatch’s idea. Dr. William Chardack was chief of surgery at Buffalo’s Veteran’s Hospital at the time. In Dr. Chardack, Greatbatch had finally found a surgeon who believed in the viability of an implantable pacemaker.

On May 7, 1958, Greatbatch brought what would become the world’s first implantable pacemaker to the animal lab at the hospital. There, Chardack and another surgeon, Dr. Andrew Gage, exposed the heart of a dog to which they touched the two parameter wires. The heart proceeded to beat in synchrony with the device. The three looked at each other. Their feelings were best expressed by Dr. Chardack, who exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

In a lab book about a year later, Greatbatch wrote “I seriously doubt if anything I ever do will give me the elation I felt that day when a 2 cubic inch electronic device of my own design controlled a living heart.”

The three - Greatbatch and Drs. Chardack and Gage - became known as the bow tie team. “The two doctors wore bow ties because children tend to pull long ties. I wear bow ties because long ties get in the way when I am soldering.”

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The “Bow Tie Team” which developed the implantable type of pacemaker.
Left: Dr. William Chardack, Dr. Andrew Gage and Wilson Greatbatch.

The months and years that followed involved a great deal of research and experimentation. “I frequently took problems to the Lord in prayer,” Greatbatch says, “and I always got the answer.”

Over the first two years expirements were made with animals. In 1960 they felt the pacemaker was ready for a human patient. Actually, they found four patients who had been diagnosed with terminal heart disease and “were willing to try anything.” These men volunteered to be among the first human beings to wear implantable pacemakers. “The first three survived over a year. The fourth just died a year or two ago,” Greatbatch is proud to say.

All this time Greatbatch was employed by the Taber Instrument Corporation. They were enthusiastic and supportive but were unable to get the insurance coverage needed to proceed with human experimentation. Even Lloyds of London turned them down. And so, with Taber’s blessing, Greatbatch started out on his own.

With only $3,000 in savings for his family to live on, he was forced into a fast-track program. When asked if those were difficult days, he answered, “My wife would say so.” Apparently his strong faith kept him from ever having any doubts that his implantable pacemaker concept would succeed.

Because he was working alone, Greatbatch was able to make much faster progress than the big companies like GE and Texas Instruments. “I had no bureaucracy to fight,” he said.

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The original workshop of Mr. Wilson Greatbatch.

In the early ‘60s Greatbatch entered into a licensing agreement with Medtronic, a reputable medical electronics firm. They would manufacture the pacemakers and later Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. would manufacture the batteries. When asked why he didn’t retain the lucrative pacemaker manufacturing business for himself, Greatbatch said “We didn’t have the (marketing) know-how or the finances required for large scale production. I am still convinced we made the right decision.”
The battery business alone has proven to be tremendous. Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. now operates three large plants and research facilities on Wehrle Drive in Clarence. The pacemaker batteries made there today will last from 6 to 10 years or more before needing replacement.

Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. is a unique corporation. It may be the only company anywhere to fully fund college tuition and books for all of its employees and all of their children.

Greatbatch doesn’t believe in retirement in the classic sense of the word. In 1991 he developed a solar-powered canoe and toured the Erie Canal and the Finger Lakes in a test run. In 1998 he visited the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital in Australia where many of the “Heart Foundation Kids” have pacemakers. At age 80 he continues to keep busy in the office/workshop adjacent to his home where he currently works on a nuclear energy project.

Wilson Greatbatch’s personal philosophy is summed up in these excerpts from his 1987 commencement address at Clarkson University:

“Success and failure are relatively unimportant in living a happy life.... I don’t think the Good Lord really cares if you succeed or fail. But he does care that you try and try hard...I should not crave success...The reward is not in the results, the reward is in the doing.... No one in the world has anything that I want badly enough to take it away from them...Don’t fear failure, don’t crave success...Things will work out. You will find true happiness and the Lord will smile on your efforts.”

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Living Prime Time.


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