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 isnt 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
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.
Bill & Eleanor Greatbatch in 1961,
about the time the first
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 couldnt 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
Wilson Greatbatch, or Bill to his friends, grew up in what was then rural West Seneca. His family moved from Buffalos 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 Pikes 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
operatorpassing 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 Eleanora
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.
Mrs. Wilson Greatbatch with (left to right)
daughter - Anne,
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 Departments animal behavior farm. There he
helped develop the instrumentation that would accompany the first monkeys into outer
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.
For recreation Mr. Greatbatch
does things like developing a
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 wasnt easy to find a heart surgeon who would believe in Greatbatchs
idea. Dr. William Chardack was chief of surgery at Buffalos Veterans 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 worlds 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, Ill
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.
The Bow Tie Team which
developed the implantable type of pacemaker.
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
Tabers 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
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 didnt retain the
lucrative pacemaker manufacturing business for himself, Greatbatch said We
didnt 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 doesnt 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 Childrens 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 Greatbatchs 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
dont 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...Dont fear failure, dont 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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