Insulin pump (prototype), electronic components / plastic, made by Nucleus Ltd, Australia, [1975-1990]
Cardiac pacemakers are small, implantable devices that apply regular, minute electrical impulses to the muscles of the heart. They produce and maintain a normal heart rate in patients who have a condition called 'heart block', which means that their natural pacemaker (the sinoatrial node) is not functioning properly. As a result the pumping action of their heart is slowed down. This can lead to temporary loss of consciousness, or heart failure and death. Since heart pacemakers were first developed in the 1950s, they have saved the life of many people around the world.
The Australian company Telectronics has had a major influence on the world-wide development of modern cardiac pacemakers. The company was founded by pioneer in medical electronics, Noel Gray, from Crookwell, NSW. It began as a sole trader in Sydney in 1961 and was incorporated in 1963. Its first medical product was an external defibrillator for electrically restoring normal heart rhythm.
In 1965 Gray established Australia's first manufacturing facility for producing pacemakers that were designed in-house. Working in collaboration with leading university teaching hospitals in Australia, Telectronics developed innovations for implantable pacemakers that went on to become world standards. These early innovations included narrowing the stimulating impulse given to the heart to 0.5 milliseconds; encapsulating the pacemaker in titanium instead of epoxy; using a microplasma weld to join the two halves of the pacemaker capsule; creating a 'demand' pacemaker that speeded up the delivery of impulses to the heart if the patient's physical exertion increased; and isolating the pacemaker's battery in a separate compartment to deal with the problem of leaking mercury-zinc batteries.
By 1986 Telectronics had become the major subsidiary of Nucleus Ltd, an Australian high technology health products group. Specialising in the research, development, production and sale of cardiac pacemakers and implantable defibrillators, the company was floated as Telectronics Holdings Ltd that year. At the time it was No 5 pacemaker company in the world, with production sites in North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Sale of shares was expected to raise the money that would enable it to become No 3. At the same time a $AU 1.2 million public interest grant was provided by the Australian federal government for clinical development of the company's defibrillator.
By 1995 Telectronics Pacing Systems, now a US subsidiary of Pacific Dunlop, had indeed become the third largest US manufacturer of heart pacemakers. But in 1994-1997 Pacific Dunlop was hit by litigation in world-wide class actions after patients were found to have been fitted with defective heart pacemaker lead wires between 1987 and 1994. In 1996 Pacific Dunlop sold the Telectronics Pacing Systems business to St Jude Medical Inc. of the USA for $170 million. Shortly afterwards the Telectronics brand name was included when St Jude sold Medtel, a medical products distribution business, to Getz Brothers and Co Inc of California in 1997.
In 1969 Nucleus began working on a new idea from overseas of stimulating bone growth with a small electric current. The work would result in Osteostim, a device with electrodes that could be implanted into broken bones. The first devices were manufactured in 1972 and they were made in Australia until the late 1970s. In 1980 a subsidiary of the Nucleus Group, BGS Medical, took over the manufacture of the bone growth stimulator (BGS) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. By the late 1980s the USA was the largest market for these devices. They were used to mend broken bones, to cause spinal fusion, and to assist bone grafts.
This account covers just some of the episodes in the history of Telectronics. The company has been an outstanding Australian example of technological and business innovation in the biomedical area. The objects included in the large collection of material donated to the Powerhouse from the former Telectronics site at Lane Cove (Sydney, Australia) help to chart this remarkable story.
About Pacific Dunlop
Gray, Christopher, Obituaries: Noel Gray, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 1999, p.36.
Gray, Noel Desmond, & Gray, Christopher John, Telectronics: The early years, Sydney: C.J. Gray, 1993.
International pacemaking, Design Australia, August/ September 1972, pp.8-9.
Kaye, Tony, PacDun: six more flawed devices, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 1995.
Kidman, Matthew, Litigation fears sink PacDun, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November 1994, p.22.
Kidman, Matthew, Court cuts PacDun plaintiffs by half, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 January 1996.
Paterson, D., Treatment of nonunion with a constant direct current: a totally implantable system, Orthop. Clin. North Am., 15 (1984), 47-59 (abstract in International Functional Electrical Stimulation Society (IFESS), Bone fracture healing references )
Powditch, Tim, Telectronics sets the pace, Australian Business, 4 June 1986.
Wood, Leonie, New pacemaker case surfaces, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 1997.
Further information about Telectronics is kept in the Powerhouse Museum's Australian Innovations research file No.0055.
Nothing is currently known about this particular insulin pump, other than that Telectronics staff identified it as a prototype from Nucleus when the Telectronics collection was given to the Powerhouse in 1997. Regarding insulin pumps in general, the first insulin pumps in the 1960s were backpacks. Smaller versions were in use by the mid-1970s.