Wilson Greatbatch

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 26 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6765
  1. Barbara Kermode-Scott

Co-inventor of the first practical implanted pacemaker

Many of us are born with a talent, but some are born with a gift that lifts them above the crowd. A select few are born with so great a gift that we call them geniuses. Wilson Greatbatch, born in Buffalo, New York, in 1919, was considered a genius by many. Wilson or Bill, as he was affectionately known, was a creative electrical engineer whose inventions changed medicine forever and have helped save the lives of millions of people around the world.

Heart block and bradycardia

When Greatbatch died in September, aged 92, his achievements were recognised by media around the world, and he was described as the “father of the implantable pacemaker.” But Greatbatch did not invent the pacemaker. Over the years several people had experimented with electrical stimulation of the heart and the design of artificial pacemakers. By the 1950s, early cardiac pacemakers were in use, but they were large, external to the body, and had to be plugged into an electrical wall socket. A lead was implanted in the patient’s heart. These first pacemakers were used in adults and children for heart block and bradycardia. They helped but caregivers, patients, and their families lived in fear of a power cut.

Next came a battery operated handheld pacemaker. Earl Bakken, the US engineer and co-founder of the medical devices maker Medtronic, worked in his …

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