Heritage Moments: A Clarence engineer and the invention that saved millions of lives

Mar 28, 2016

One day in 1956, Wilson Greatbatch, a 37-year-old assistant professor of electrical engineering at UB, was working on an oscilloscope at a chronic disease research center on Main Street. He reached to get a brown-black-orange resistor out of a box of tiny components but accidentally pulled out a brown-black-green one instead. Not noticing that he had a 1,000-kiloohm resistor rather than a 10-kiloohm, he installed it. The oscilloscope started pulsing to an astonishingly specific rhythm.

“I stared at the thing in disbelief,” Greatbatch wrote many years later, “and then realized that this was exactly what was needed to drive a heart.” He had stumbled upon the makings of one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century, a fully implantable cardiac pacemaker – an invention that would save literally millions of lives around the world.

Greatbatch had a talent for electronics since his days as a short-wave radio operator at West Seneca High and radar instructor in the World War II Navy, so when he saw the rhythm on the oscilloscope he recognized something that might stave off heart failure. But nobody shared his enthusiasm until almost two years later, when he explained his idea to Dr. William Chardack, chief of surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital on Bailey Avenue.

Within three weeks, Chardack and his medical team had implanted a pacemaker Greatbatch built into a dog, attaching the pulsing little gizmo to its heart muscles with electrodes. They made improvements with each succeeding experiment, and by 1959 they were ready to implant one into a human patient. If it worked, it would be a first – pacemakers existed, but they were external, the size of a small portable radio and attached to the heart with wires; patients had to carry them around in a pocket or a holster.

Greatbatch quit his job at the Taber Instrument Corporation in North Tonawanda to concentrate solely on perfecting his innovation. Setting aside all his savings, $2,000, to feed his family for two years, he hand-assembled the pacemakers in the barn behind his home in Clarence. His wife, Eleanor, tested them in the house – literally by tapping on them with a pencil to make sure they’d keep working despite the impact.

In June 1960 at Millard Fillmore Hospital, one of those pacemakers was implanted into Frank Henefelt, a 77-year-old with a heartbeat so irregular it caused blackouts and falls, including one that fractured his skull. After the procedure, his pulse strong and steady, Henefelt went home and enjoyed a relatively active life. He lived another 18 months.

Nine other patients received hand-built pacemakers, including a young factory worker not expected to live long. The man recovered, got a new job, joined a bowling team, and was still going strong when Greatbatch met him again 30 years later. In his 2000 memoir, the deeply religious Greatbatch remembered that man with a phrase from the Gospel of John.

“It is given to very few engineers to say to a patient, ‘Pick up thy bed and walk,’” he wrote. “It is given to us and we appreciate it.”*

In 1961, the manufacturing of Greatbatch’s pacemakers began. By the time of his death in 2011 at age 92, some 600,000 pacemakers were being implanted in patients every year.

But that was far from the only thing he gave society. In 1972 Greatbatch developed a long-life pacemaker battery that was also used in other medical instruments and even on NASA’s space shuttle. He held patents for procedures used in AIDS research, a solar-powered canoe, and more than 300 other innovations. He received the National Technology Medal from President George H.W. Bush and a lifetime achievement award from M.I.T. He taught Sunday school and sang in the choir at Clarence Presbyterian Church, and with Eleanor founded and ran a charitable foundation.

Wilson Greatbatch lived a long, happy and useful life, and enhanced the lives of countless others. In an interview about his greatest invention he noted the Bible’s description of a typical lifespan, three score years and 10.

“We were exceeding that,” Greatbatch said. “We like to think that we changed the world with that pacemaker, and I think we did.”

*For Greatbatch’s own recollections of his life and career, see The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Lifesaving Invention (Prometheus Books). For an overview of early pacemakers, see the March 4, 1961, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Eleanor Greatbatch: Darleen Pickering Hummert
Wilson Greatbatch: Richard Hummert
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839), performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)