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By Dr. Wilson Greatbatch

Vice-Grandmaster of the Order of Alexander the Great



I was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference on "bioelectromagnetism" in Melbourne, Australia and decided to accept. Risky, since I'm still not sure what the word means, to say nothing of giving a keynote speech on it. But Eleanor said, "Just give one of your pacemaker talks and put a different title on it". I always do what Eleanor says.

I flew to Los Angeles and stayed there overnight to rest up. That was a mistake. "Resting up" was more traumatic than going straight through.

We flew 12 hours, overnight to Auckland, New Zealand, stopped two hours to gas up and allow the passangers to spend some money in the Airport Mall. I bought Eleanor a cashmere New Zealand lambswool sweater with little lambs running all over it. Might as well have turned around and flown back since my shopping was done already.

Four hours more to Melbourne where one of my hosts met me and took me to my hotel. Being South of the Equator, it is summer in Melbourne now. Temperatures ranged from 65F to 75F most days. They are having a draught on account of El Nino so it only rained one day during the week I was there.

This was my fourth trip to Australia. My first trip was in World War II as a rear gunner in a squadron of US Navy dive bombers, flying off the USS Monterey, chasing the Japanese out of the Coral Sea. President Gerald Ford was a deck officer on ous ship, and President George Bush was a torpedo plane pilot on our sister ship USS San Jacinto. I was in good company. I got to meet each of them in later years and rehash "old times". Old sailors never die. They just go on retelling the wars, the way they should have been.

This time my trip to Australia was more peaceful. It was sponsored by the Australian Heart Association so my time was divided between the Conference and doing things for the Heart Association in Melbourne and Sydney. My first visit was to the Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital where I met 25 "Heartkids" with pacemakers for a picture taking session that got on Australian TV and the local papers. The Heart Association has published a book on pacemakers for the parents of kids with pacemakers which they will sell as a fundraiser. It was written by the Chief of Cardiology, Dr. Jim Wilkenson, an Englishman who trained at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, Englad. I had visited that hospital in early pacemaker days when they were implanting an inductive pacemaker made by Lucas, an automotive parts manufacturer, in Birmingham. Thus I had known Mr. Abrams, his surgery professor there.

In England all cardiologists are called Dr., but all surgeons are called Mr. This is because originally all cardiologists were noblemen, but what little surgery there was (Sword wounds and gores from bulls) was done by barbers, who were commoners. Even today the red and white stripes on a barber pole symbolize the blood and bandages associated with their trade.

The kids had a big playroom in the hospital loaded with toys and some bean bags a yard square. I had to sit on a big pile of them with the 25 kids around me, for picture taking. Three of the pacemaker kids were from one family. I had never heard of that many pacemakers in one family. They had "long Q-T syndrome", an inherited heart disease which can go to cardiac arrest and sudden death if the kid gets suddenly stressed. Australian TV liked the shots and scheduled us for a live presentation the next day, but the next day produced the "Asian flu" economic crises in Indonesia and the final debate in the Australian parliament on Australian independence from England. We got displaced. It was most interesting talking to the kids. One of the best pictures showed a six-year-old sitting on my lap while she laughingly held a stethoscope to my chest! Unfortunately I was never able to get prints of it.

I met with four different groups of Heart Association financial donors in groups of about 30 to 40 to tell about the early support of pacemaking in Australia by their Heart Association. Most of the donors were of my age, some of them World War II veterans and some of them pacemaker users, so we related well. Friday night (Valentine's Day Eve) I attended their Heart Ball. I had missed ours by one day, which I regretted since our Michelle Kuhn was co-chairman of the event. Mebourne is about twice the size of Buffalo but their heart ball was about half the size of ours. They told me that 80% of their support comes from individual donors whereas 80% of our support here in Buffalo comes from corporate supporters (like Wilson Greatbatch Ltd.) They had a four piece rock band. I never knew four people could make to much noise. I gave up at 11:00 pm and staggered home!

The convention lasted three days. I labeled my keynote speech, "Coalescence of the Sciences". It said that "bioelectromagnetism" is so broad and interdisciplinary a subject (all the way from pacemakers to acupuncture) that all the sciences coalesce into one, and that one is Biology, particularly Molecular Biology. I apparently anticipated the general theme of the conference, so the talk went over well. One guy said I was an "inspiration" (overstated). Another gave me an acupuncture set. I have attached the abstract, which they published. It is probably too long for the Newsletter, but I will post in on the bulletin board.

The conference banquet was held on a riverboat which went the length of the Yarro River to the Melbourne Harbour and back. They had an Australian country ("Outback") band that was extremely versatile and very good. Many Australian professionals are Serbs and Bosnians. The bank played some Serbian music and the passengers did their native dances including Russian ones where the men crouch on their heels and kick their feet out. Very impressive. The accordionist, and Irishman, came over and thanked me for his mother's pacemaker.

While on the boat trip I inducted Dr. Graehme Sloman into the Order of Alexander the Great. He is probably the most highly esteemed cardiologist in the Asian-Pacific theatre, and is our first and only Australian inductee.

Sunday afternoon Dr. Wilkenson picked me up and drove me through some of the Yarro valley, a wine producing region. The valley, like much of southern Australia is very much like New York State, but with a milder climate. They never have snow and have some tropical plants and animals, like gum trees and wild parrots. The parrots are very tame in the National Parks and they perched on our hands and heads to pick up grain which we could buy at a concession stand. We stopped at a vineyard for lunch. A very pleasant afternoon.

A local Cardiology group put on a dinner for me with about twenty Melbourne cardiologists, surgeons and engineers. I renewed acquaintances with Dr. Graeme Sloman who put in the first pacemakers in Australia, and Dr. Harry Mond. Dr. Mond gave me a copy of the proceedings of a workshop we held in Melbourne in 1971 where we introduced our first lithium pacemaker. Last time I was down there he held a reception at his home where I read bedtime stories to his young daughter Natalie. I had suggested that during this trip I might talk in Natalie's school, but was reminded that she is now 19 years old and going to the University in Israel. Where do the years go? Also there was Geoffrey Wickham, the original pacemaker designer for Teletronics. He gave me a picture of the roundtable participants at the 1971 meeting. Later in Sydney I had coffee with Paul Trainer who was president of Teletronics in the early days. I had not seen him since we entertained him at our home on Bodine Rd. when our "factory" was still on Shisler Road. That would be at least 30 years ago!

At that time all the world's pacemakers were designed by a handful of international engineers; myself and Bob Anderson with Medtronic, Jeff Wickham with Teletronics in Australia, Geoffrey Davies with Devices Ltd. in England, Barough Berkowits and Sheldon Thaler at American Optical in Waltham MA, Walter Keller with Cordis in Miami, and Hans Thornander and Rune Elmqvist with Elema Schonander (later Siemens) in Sweden. We were all friends and interacted continuously at meetings and with visits. We quite openly discussed problems and solutions and helped each other whenever we could. It is interesting that we worked cooperatively while our company presidents were fighting each other. I attribute the early technical success and rapid acceptance of pacemaking to this handful of engineers. All but Rune Elmqvist are still alive and kicking.

In Melbourne I talked to a half dozen high school and elementary school classes. There, a combined elementary and high school is a "college". Many are private and some are church related. Many are still separate boys' and girls' schools, sometimes adjacent (but separated by a high fence). I found the kids very receptive and interested in what I had to say. In many of them groups of students gathered around me to ask more questions after my talk. I was surprised to find one girls' high school chemistry class much interested in Helium-3 nuclear fusion. I left them all my literature.

In Sydney I had more meetings with Heart Association donor groups. I suggested a "Heartkids" hospital session, but they said one heartkid had recently died unexpectedly and the whole heartkids community was so upset that a meeting would have been inappropriate. In all my talks to the donor groups I emphasized how the Heart Association had made a donation of $ 1,600 to a Dr. Nicks at Prince Albert Hospital in Sydney to develop an implantable cardiac pacemaker in 1961. This was the start of the Teletronics Company. I was quite amazed, as were the Heart Association people when an elderly distinguished looking gentleman arouse and announced that he was Dr. Nicks. He gave quite a boost to the fund raising aspects of my talk. The Heart Association people had no idea he was coming, or that he was even still in the area. It was most interesting to talk with him. A truly historic occasion.

So back home to snowy Clarence. This time with 20 hours on planes with no rest stop. I guess there's no way to make that trip comfortably! To make it worse, we intersected with all the Winter Olympics people and their equipment coming back from Nagano. Four 747's all unloaded at once at 7:30 am in Los Angeles.

Australia is nice, and I have great memories of the land and its people.




Dr. Wilson Greatbatch is the inventor of the implantable cardiac pacemaker. He is the recipient of numerous awards and lives with his wife Eleanor near Buffalo, New York. At the age of 78, he still continues to work on various scientific research projects. Dr. Greatbatch also serves as the Vice-Grandmaster of the Order of Alexander the Great for Art and Science.


May we recommend some books?

Living with the Himalayan Masters, by Swami Rama

Primer for Those Who Would Govern, by Hermann Oberth

Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

Arno Breker: The Divine Beauty in Art, by B. John Zavrel

Mantra and Meditation, by Dr. Usharbudh Arya

Alexander the Great, by Robin Lane Fox



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