July and August 1992 were interesting times at Olcott International. I was busy coordinating marketing activities with fellow employee Peggy. My sister Blair also joined the company for a couple of weeks as she was out of college for the summer; I welcomed her company in yet another attempt to curtail or document Dad’s occasional onslaughts of wild behavior.
Like the time in July 1989 out of the blue one morning he assigned at the last minute a “chore” for me: move 25+ heavy (40 pounds each) 3 x 3 stacks of heavy tiles around the family summer house in Shinnecock Hills, Long Island. It was beyond my ability. But no matter. Later that afternoon, he hunted me down at a friend’s house by telephone to tell me I was disinherited.
Dad was like that. Apparently, it ran in the family. Remember my Uncle Ed who out of the blue would also assign overbearing tasks to my cousin Billy and berate him if left uncompleted?
But back to Peggy. She was a good soul who had a lot of previous experience with legal software and easily did her share of (in this case appropriate) heavy lifting in terms of marketing and support. At the time, Olcott International sold various versions of patent management software, including ones for DOS, Windows, and Mac! I learned, and trained clients in, all of them.
The Mac version was a real curiosity. No one else had it! Apple’s patent department in Cupertino was definitely intrigued; apparently, they were managing their patent data on a Windows platform, much to their and Steve Jobs’ chagrin.
But in the middle of this patent management business drama appeared a man much like Huntington Hartford or Bobby Edwards. Out of the blue and completely unexpected.
But in this case, Dr. Wilson Greatbatch was the real deal. An inventor’s inventor. The man who had created the pacemaker and who was now going to cure AIDS. What was he doing in the Weehawken, New Jersey offices of Olcott International?
Dr. Greatbatch was one year younger than my Dad. Hailing from the Buffalo area, the two New Yorkers apparently ran together in the military during World War II. His expertise was as an aviation radioman, which meshed with Dad’s duty in the Signal Corps as an electrical engineer working at Hazard Reeve’s Soundcraft Studios (among other places).
They went their separate ways after the war. But they both loved to tinker with things and that’s how Greatbatch had his eureka moment in 1956 with the pacemaker.
At the time, he was an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Buffalo. One day, when he was tired and overworked, he was in the lab building a device to record heart rhythms. In a serendipitous moment, he reached into a box to grab a part to complete the circuitry. Fortunately, he pulled out the wrong size and the finished board didn’t record heartbeats, it gave them off as electrical pulses!
He realized that the device could be used as a pacemaker. It took him two more years to refine it. Subsequently, he received the world’s first patent for an implantable pacemaker. Previously, these things were the size of television sets and actually gave patients a small electrical shock. The ability to implant a device that didn’t hurt or disturb was therefore a huge innovation.
After successful testing in dogs, the first human patient to receive one was 77 years old and lived 18 months afterwards. At the time, 18 months was a significant improvement. However, if the battery didn’t have to be changed, the patient could live much longer. This was therefore the next hurdle to resolve – zinc-mercury batteries in the late 1950s were only durable for less than two years.
Changing a pacemaker battery turned out to be, as cousin Billy and I would call it, an inappropriate chore. Brute force pacemaker battery swaps had their limitations.
So Greatbatch set it upon himself to find a better way. How about a longer lasting battery? Then you don’t have to hurt yourself moving heavy tiles around, I mean, changing the battery on a pacemaker inside body cavities of patients. He acquired the rights to an improved lithium iodine battery in 1968 and spent the next four years re-engineering his enhanced pacemaker. The new device could last more than a decade!
In 1985, his pacemaker was recognized as one of the ten greatest engineering achievements of the last 50 years by the National Society of Professional Engineers.
Now in 1992, I didn’t know any of this. So Blair and I learned it firsthand from Greatbatch himself. I was floored. I’ll never forget one thing he told me. The nerve that runs from the brain to the heart, the one that controls heartbeat by the body’s own electrical current, has a negative resistance! This means that the current is amplified, not diminished as it travels down the cable, er, nerve.
We do not have anything near that kind of technology. Current strength is lost in all wires and cabling due to an inherent resistance. If we could create cables with negative resistance, our energy limitations would be a thing of the past. Think about it.
So by 1992, pacemakers were a done deal for Greatbatch. I presume that maybe he had reached out to Dad in a search for funding on his next project (although he had created a significant fortune based on his pacemaker patents) – curing AIDS! The man was unstoppable!
Me, I was just going to the office one day in 1992 to get my fair share of abuse. I had already been fired the previous month for using the wrong letterhead on a fax (one that he had previously sanctioned). Instead I found myself face to face with one of the greatest scientists who ever lived telling me how he was going to cure AIDS!
His approach was easy enough to understand. He was very critical of current research at the time that aimed to prevent HIV from entering the body. According to him, the damn virus soundly defeated all attempts to bar entry. His methodology on the other hand was to prevent it from attacking white blood cells. This was to be achieved by introducing artificial genes that themselves would attach to CD4 receptors on white blood cells. HIV uses these CD4s as a port to enter the cell and hijack it to create more virus particles. If, by his gene therapy, those receptors could be shut down, then HIV would be rendered an ineffective pathogen.
Imagine what it must have been like for me to go to work one day and have the privilege of chatting up someone like this!
“So, Dr. Greatbatch, how do you create those CD4 blockers?” “With a gene sequencer!” Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?!
Unexpectedly, an invitation was extended to Blair, Peggy, Dad, and I to go visit the great man himself at his lab a few weeks later in Ithaca. Off we trundled to Cornell, land of bridges over gorges (like Carnegie-Mellon) and beautiful vineyards by Cayuga Lake. We spent a day in the lab watching white coated technicians play with long tubular devices stolen from the starship Enterprise itself.
HIV life cycle.
And in the blink of an eye, I was back in Weehawken, trying to survive Dad’s declining mental state as his ever faithful second. One moment I was the heir successor. The next, I was accused of stealing. The memory of Greatbatch faded away until I wrote this story just now in 2016, some 24 years later.
How to reconcile all that? If I truly believe, that nothing is more blessed than to relieve the pain and suffering of others, how do I explain Dad bringing Dr. Greatbatch into our lives? If he brings an angel, isn’t he also blessed?
At one point during my stay in Ithaca, I explained my concerns about my Dad’s erratic behavior to Dr. Greatbatch. The mature church-going and choir-singing man listened attentively to me, with great thought and reverence. He simply looked at me afterwards and said that my Dad loved me. Well, I loved my Dad, too. He had done everything for me, including bringing me to the temple of modernity to learn this fantastic international business.
So the good parts of life with Dad were truly great. And they always were. But, how to mitigate the bad parts, where I was thrown under Dad’s bus so much you could read the Tire Pressure Instructions on my back? On this, I was truly on my own.
As Dr. Greatbatch said, “The Good Lord doesn’t care if you succeed or fail, but he wants you to try, and try hard. And that’s all that’s required.”
That was the answer.