The year was 1969 and Robert Fischell was lying on the couch in his living room, reading IEEE Spectrum, a magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, when he saw an advertisement that would lead to one of the world’s greatest medical device inventions.
The advertisement was for the P.R. Mallory Company (now known as Duracell International).
"And the advertisement was that their battery is so good, that it could last as long as two years in the heart pacemaker. And it showed an x-ray of a person with a pacemaker in their chest with five Mallory batteries, each an inch long, and half-inch in diameter," Fischell told MD+DI in a 2017 interview.
Fischell, who was the chief engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory at the time, was not at all impressed with the battery manufacturer’s claim.
"I looked at it and I said, 'you mean that only lasts two years?' And then, obviously, it has to be removed, so it takes surgery every two years in the person's life,” he said.
To Fischell, the solution was rather obvious. Why not use one rechargeable battery, make the entire device one-quarter of the size, and recharge it by magnetic induction through the skin, so that it will last for the rest of the patient's life?
The next morning, Fischell called Johns Hopkins Hospital and asked to speak with the person in charge of pacemakers, who at that time was Ken Lewis, MD. That's when Fischell learned that pacemakers, at that time, really only lasted 14 months, on average – two years was rare.
"So, I said, 'I tell you what. I will bring to you next week a working breadboard of a pacer one-quarter the size that will last the patient's lifetime'," Fischell said, then he chuckled as he recalled Lewis' reaction. "He says, 'the hell you say'."
It was a mighty ambitious promise, but fortunately for Fischell, he didn't have to fulfill it all on his own. He was chief of a group of 300 engineers, and he recruited his three most talented engineers to join him on the project.
"I wrote on the blackboard, as I often did, the system block diagram of how something should work," Fischell said. "And I drew a diagram of a rechargeable heart pacemaker. And I said, 'I promised the doctor at Johns Hopkins that in one week we'll have this working in breadboard form'."
His trustee team of engineers did not let him down.
"Three days later, they brought it to me," Fischell said.
This is also the story of how Alfred Mann got into the medical device business. Fischell and Mann knew each other because Mann’s company at the time, Spectrolab (now part of The Boeing Company), provided the solar cells and panels to power the spacecraft that Mann’s team designed.
So that, Fischell said, is how Mann started his first medical device company.
"He said, 'Bob, I'll work with you, and we'll start Pacesetter Systems Inc. to make the world's best pacemaker'," Fischell recalled.
That was in 1969, and the first rechargeable implantable pacemaker was just the first of many implantable medical devices that were invented by Fischell and his team at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, and manufactured by Pacemaker Systems.
Fischell's honors are numerous and fitting of his many achievements. He won the 2017 MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2016 he received the National Medal for Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama for his contributions toward the betterment of mankind.