September 29, 2011

Wilson Greatbatch ’50, Pacemaker Inventor, Dies

Print More

Wilson Greatbatch ’50, inventor of the implantable cardiac pacemaker,  died Wednesday night in Buffalo, N.Y., at the age of 92.

Since its first use in 1960, the pacemaker has allowed people with heart problems to regulate their heartbeats with an electrode attached to the heart. Now, over 500,000 pacemakers are implanted every year, the American Heart Association reported.

“There had been no cure for arrhythmias in the heart, so what would happen is people that had problems with their heart stopping, or heart not beating fast enough, there was no way to prevent that, until the pacemaker,” said Prof. Richard Newman, bioengineering.

At Cornell, Greatbatch studied electrical engineering. He enrolled in the University after serving in the Navy.

“Cornell was wonderful! After all that time in the dive bombers, it was such a joy to wander around the campus, to go to class and to learn something, to be a part of the great tradition of all that had gone before,” Greatbatch wrote in his memoir The Making of the Pacemaker.

He obtained a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Even after graduating, he maintained ties with Cornell, working as an adjunct professor and serving on the University Council. Greatbatch also conducted research on a virus in cats that resembles HIV with Cornell professors in the College of Veterinary Medicine, the Cornell Chronicle reported in 1996.

Including his patents on the pacemaker and the long-life lithium battery he invented to power it, he received more than 150 patents throughout his lifetime. His other inventions included instruments for AIDS research.

Though Greatbatch was famous, he was very unassuming, Newman said. “He would tell jokes about himself,” he said.

Greatbatch was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1996, Greatbatch received a lifetime achievement award from the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program. He was also a member of the National Academy of Engineering and inducted into American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering Hall of Fame.

After the pacemaker had gone on the market, the batteries it used were discovered to be ineffective. Every two years patients would have to replace the battery, Newman said. Therefore, Great­batch created Wilson Greatbatch Ltd. to create newer batteries that last 10 years. Now called Greatbatch, Inc, this company provides technologies and products for the medical and commercial market.

Although his cause of death was not released, Greatbatch had been in poor health, The Washington Post reported.

Greatbatch and his wife, Eleanor Greatbatch, had five children.

Original Author: Caroline Flax