1996 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
|Photo by Robert Lewis
In an attempt to record the sound of a heartbeat, Dr. Wilson Greatbatch
inadvertently created something far more cruciala device that
emitted electricity pulses to the heart. It was this discovery that
led to the implantable cardiac pacemaker and distinguished Greatbatch
as having created one of the most significant inventions of the
20th century. In 1996, he was honored with the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime
Greatbatch first learned of heart blocka condition in which
a nerve fails to send electrical impulses to make the heart workwhile
talking with two surgeons visiting Cornell University in the early
1950s. At the time, combating heart block was done with a painful
electric shock delivered via bulky external equipment. Greatbatch
was convinced he could invent a smaller, implantable device.
Then, quite by accident, Greatbatch's "eureka moment"
happened in 1958. Transistors had recently become available, and
Greatbatch was building an oscillator with one transistor to record
heartbeat sounds. He incorporated the wrong transistor, which produced
a pulse that mimicked the rhythm of a heart. "I stared at the
thing in disbelief, thinking this was exactly the properties of
a pacemaker," said Greatbatch.
Greatbatch licensed his invention to Medtronic, Inc., and the first
pacemaker was implanted in a human in 1960. He upgraded his device
with a lithium iodine battery for durability in 1970, and his invention
has been saving lives ever since.
Greatbatch has shown a commitment to educating children through
inspirational speeches at schools and museums. He also established
the Eleanor and Wilson Greatbatch Foundation to donate money to
schools and other causes.
Still inventing, Greatbatch acquired three patents with scientist
John Sanford in the 1980s and 1990s for methods of inhibiting the
replication of AIDS and another similar virus in cats.
Greatbatch was born in 1919 in Buffalo, NY. U.S. Naval service
in World War II enabled him to receive a bachelor's degree in engineering
from Cornell University as a GI Bill student (1950). He received
a master's in electrical engineering from the University of Buffalo
(1957), succeeded by four honorary degrees. Greatbatch, who holds
over 220 patents, is a member of the National Inventors Hall of
Fame and the National Academy of Engineering, among others.