Wilson Greatbatch (1919 – 2011)
The next inductee into our Hall of Fame is a serial inventor whose greatest contribution to the well-being of mankind was discovered by accident.
In the 1950s after leaving the navy Greatbatch was working as a medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, trying to develop an oscillator to record heart sounds. (Un)fortunately, one day as he was assembling his box of tricks he reached out for a resistor, got hold of the wrong type and unwittingly fitted it to his oscillator. Naturally, the machine did not behave as he anticipated – instead of recording the rhythm of a beating heart he noticed that his machine gave off the a rhythmic electrical pulse. The result reminded him of some discussions he had held with colleagues some time ago in which they speculated whether an electrical stimulation could make up for a breakdown of the heart’s natural beats.
Showing the ingenuity that we come to expect of our inductees Wilson decided to experiment further and two years later he had developed and been awarded a patent for the first implantable pacemaker, just two cubic inches in size.
Before Greatbatch’s breakthrough pacemakers existed but they were the size of televisions and the patient had to be wired up to them. An unfortunate by-product of the early pacemakers was that the patient often received electric shocks.
His first pacemaker was fitted into a 77-year-old who survive for 18 months. Now more than half a million of the devices are fitted per annum and the National Society of Professional Engineers recognised Greatbatch’s invention as one of the top ten engineering achievements in the last fifty years.
But Greatbatch didn’t finish there. He was frustrated by the limitations that battery technology imposed on his pacemaker and so in the 1970s started to develop and manufacture long-life lithium batteries. His company, Greatbatch Inc, eventually supplied 90% of the world’s pacemaker batteries.
By the time of his death (I can’t confirm the cause but I suspect it wasn’t a heart attack) Greatbatch held over 325 patents and had made significant contributions into environmental research and AIDS.
An act of stupidity or carelessness (take your pick) ultimately made a significant contribution to medical science. Wilson, you are worthy of our Hall of Fame.
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