Inventor of Implantable Pacemaker
Honored for Lifetime Achievement
Wilson Greatbatch Recognized by Lemelson-MIT
New York, NY, April 11, 1996 — Independent inventor
and entrepreneur Wilson Greatbatch of Clarence, NY, has been named
the 1996 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Lemelson-MIT
Prize Program, administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Greatbatch is the inventor of the implantable cardiac pacemaker
— the first major internal biomedical device in history —
and holds 150 patents, founding nine companies in the process.
The announcement was made today at the New York Academy of Sciences
in New York City by Dr. Lester C. Thurow, internationally renowned
economist of MIT's Sloan School of Management and chairman of the
Lemelson-MIT Prize Board, which oversees the selection process.
Greatbatch will be honored at a ceremony this evening at the Smithsonian's
National Museum of American History (Washington, DC) for his contributions
to American invention and innovation.
Independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy,
established the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program at MIT in 1994 to recognize
the nation's most talented inventors in order to promote positive
role models for American youngsters. The program's Lifetime Achievement
Award honors individuals for career-long accomplishments and ingenuity.
"Wilson Greatbatch's life illustrates the strength of the
commitment, drive and curiosity that drives inventors," said
Charles M. Vest, president of MIT. "He is an important example
for aspiring innovators everywhere."
Thurow calls Greatbatch "an inspiring role model for independent
inventors everywhere in terms of the length and breadth of his inventiveness
and his adamant insistence that his work would pay for itself."
Commenting on his Award, Greatbatch said, "Just immerse yourself
in the problem and work hard. The true reward is not in the results
but in the doing."
Greatbatch's interest in science and invention expressed itself
as a teenager, when he built his own short-wave radio from scratch.
But it was after his Naval service (serving as a rear gunner in
carrier-based dive bombers), while working at Cornell University's
Animal Behavior Farm, that he began inventing in earnest. Brown
bag lunch sessions with two neurosurgeons in 1951 taught Greatbatch
that potentially deadly periodic heartbeat stoppages could be stopped
only by television-set sized devices that had to be plugged into
an outlet and delivered a painful shock to skin electrodes on the
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It was in the late 1950s, with the introduction of transistors,
that Greatbatch made the mistake that eventually created the pacemaker.
While building an oscillator with one transistor to aid recording
of fast heart sounds, Greatbatch grabbed the wrong resistor. The
circuit pulsed, then stopped, then pulsed again exactly the
rhythm of the human heart.
With the encouragement and help of William C. Chardack, chief of
surgery at Buffalo's Veteran's Administration Hospital, Greatbatch
created and tested a number of designs, eventually taking two years
to create, by hand, his first 50 pacemakers, working in an old cedar-sided
barn in the back of his house, heated by a woodburning stove.
With a licensing agreement with Medtronic, Inc., and Chardack's
pioneering work educating the medical profession in this new discovery,
pacemakers soon became a recognized force in modern medicine. Since
the first pacemaker was implanted in 1960, some three million lives
have been saved, and Medtronics, Inc. continues as the world's top
producer of therapeutic implantable devices, with sales of $1.4
billion in 1994. Pacemakers accounted for 67 percent of sales.
In the 1970s, Greatbatch searched for a longer-lasting pacemaker
battery that would not be affected by the corrosive salts in the
human body. He adapted a lithium iodine power source for the demands
of the pacemaker. The power source led to the founding of Wilson
Greatbatch Ltd. in Clarence, New York. With $30 million in sales,
Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. still sells or licenses more than 90 percent
of the world's pacemaker batteries.
In the 1980s, Greatbatch focused his inventive creativity to ecological
and environmental projects: he modified his pick-up truck to run
on alcohol, and developed "Voyager," a solar-powered canoe
in which he cruised 120 miles on the Finger Lakes for his 72nd birthday.
"That was an exhilarating experience," he recalls.
Today, at age 76, Greatbatch remains as inquisitive as he was in
his early teens, when he built his first short-wave radio. For his
work of the past decade, he and a colleague, John Sanford of Cornell
University, were awarded a patent for their work in stopping the
reproduction of a virus similar to HIV in cats.
Greatbatch is now president and CEO of Greatbatch Gen-Aid Ltd.
which is continuing ten years of AIDS research using anti-sense
hybridization interference to try to block replication of the AIDS
"There are few more outstanding examples of a lifetime dedicated
to innovation than Wilson Greatbatch," said Lemelson.
The Lifetime Achievement Award is part of the Lemelson-MIT Prize
Program, which also bestows the Lemelson-MIT Prize.
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994
by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife,
Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through
outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest
for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages
young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering,
technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded
by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire
College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance
and the University of Nevada, Reno.
Read more about Wilson
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