Wilson Greatbatch, Presbyterian Elder and Pacemaker Inventor, Dies

Wilson Greatbatch died Tuesday, but, because of his life’s work, an estimated 600,000 lives are saved each year.

Greatbatch was the inventor of the first implantable pacemaker and also developed the lithium battery required to sustain its life-preserving pulse.

In an interview with The Vega Science Trust, and wearing his trademark bowtie, Greatbatch mused about how his 1958 invention increased life expectancy: “Three score years and ten. . .[that’s] Biblical. We were exceeding that. We like to think that we changed the world with that pacemaker, and I think we did.”

Born in 1919 in Buffalo, NY, Greatbatch’s path to changing the world began with his boyhood interest in electronics. This interest placed him at Cornell University’s engineering department in 1950, where he first heard of the desperate condition of heart block patients.

At the time, cardiac patients had to rely on an external pacemaker that would regulate the heart, but leave the patient’s skin raw and burned. Greatbatch heard from Cornell researchers how patients would wear the painful device for one day only. “The second day,” Greatbatch said, “they would disconnect it and commit suicide” rather than endure the high-voltage pulse.

Greatbatch responded by developing a unit that could stimulate the heart from inside the body, requiring a much smaller voltage and involving no pain for the patient.

Besides using his intelligence for scientific problem-solving—his later projects included AIDs and alternative fuel research—Greatbatch served the church. He was an elder at Clarence Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Clarence, NY.

As a scientist, Greatbatch received prestigious awards from places like MIT, the Smithsonian Institute, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame, but he began attending church to receive a prize, too. When his Boy Scout troop offered the boys ten points for each service, Greatbatch regularly sat under gospel preaching.

Later, during his World War II military service, he began to seek God in earnest. When he reflected on his war experiences to interviewer Cynthia Machamer in 2008, he said, “a lot of people died, but I was spared. Apparently, God had other plans for me.”

It was during the war, flying dangerous combat missions, that he began carrying a Bible.

In articles about Greatbatch, his life of prayer and faith is frequently mentioned. According to Machamer: “[Greatbatch] will tell you that he often sought the Lord in prayer ‘to ask Him what he wants me to do.’”

In 1958, having been refused further research assistance by his employer, Greatbatch sought the Lord and decided to leave his job. With $2,000 in savings and a large vegetable garden, he supported his family while pursuing full-time research in a barn on his Clarence, NY property.

With the help of two other researchers, William M. Chardack and Andrew R. Gage, Greatbatch built 50 implantable pacemakers.

To power them, Greatbatch did further research in the area of lithium batteries, and he was assisted by Houghton College. The Christian college gave him laboratory space and allocated some of their chemistry curriculum to help with his work.

The technology behind the pacemakers and batteries that were the result of Greenbatch’s labors are still enhancing the lives of cardiac patients today.

Those patients can also thank Greenbatch’s wife, Eleanor. They married in 1945, and Mrs. Greatbatch acted as research assistant, testing her husband’s prototype pacemakers for durability. She died in January of this year.

The couple had four children, twelve grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren, many of whom were with Greatbatch when he died in his New York state home earlier this week.

A memorial service will be October 10 at Clarence Presbyterian Church where, in addition to serving as an elder, Greatbatch taught Sunday school and sang in the choir.

When asked about his legacy for future generations, Greatbatch once said: “If you want to know what I want to be known as: it is as one of the Lord’s smaller people.”

Megan Hill is a PCA ‘Preacher’s Kid’ married to Rob Hill who is pastor of St. Paul Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Jackson, MS. This story was written exclusively for The Aquila Report

Adam, John. “Making Hearts Beat” Lemelson Center Invention Features. Smithsonian Institution. 5 February 1999.

Feder, Barnaby. “Wilson Greatbatch, Inventor of Implantable Pacemaker, Dies at 92.” The New York Times. 28 September 2011.

Greatbatch, Wilson. Video interview. The Vega Science Trust.
Machamer, Cynthia. “Science, Faith, and Music—A Visit with Wilson and Eleanor Greatbatch.” Houghton College. Fall 2008.

Rey, Jay. “Inventor Wilson Greatbatch dies.” The Buffalo News. 27 September 2011. [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]