Black history is American history: Meet George Nelms

February is Black History Month, a time when we honor the history, culture, achievements and contributions black Americans have made to our nation.

Speaking of which, did you know a black Scottsdale resident was the inventor of key components in the development of pacemaker technology?

George Nelms grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s in his grandmother’s house in a close-knit neighborhood on the South side of Chicago.

“The street was also an extension of the family because we’d have porches, and people would sit out there and they would know all the kids, all the grandkids,” he said during an interview with Scottsdale Public Library’s Walking History series. 

“One of the things that I find very interesting is that we grew up poor, but we were rich. I mean, now that I find that I’m comfortable living, I find that there are a lot of people that are comfortable living, but they’re not rich in terms of experiences in life.”

He attended a vocational high school in pursuit of knowledge in the field of television repair because it was a popular new technology at the time. After graduation, he decided to attend the University of Illinois, but started off on academic probation because the strictly vocational curriculum of his high school didn’t include the prerequisite math and English classes.

The university, located in Champaign-Urbana (an area surrounded by cornfields about two hours from where George grew up), had very different demographics than he was used to seeing in metropolitan Chicago; the majority of students were white and many came from wealthier backgrounds.

“Going into the University of Illinois was a culture shock because some of these stereotypes, which everyone has by the way, you know, you start off at a mental disadvantage thinking that you can’t compete with these other kids because you think these other kids are brighter than you are,” he said.

Instead of being discouraged by the notion that he had a steeper hill to climb than the other students, George buckled down, applied his focus to his education and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1962.

He and his wife, Noella, married a few years later and George went on to have a successful career, working on satellite energy systems at RCA, weapons systems at Honeywell and microprocessor, chip-handling systems and medical laboratory automation at Medtronic. 

It was at Medtronic, in the late-1970s, that he invented several apparatuses that made pacemaker technology possible — a medical advancement that has extended the lives of millions of people.

While George’s story is one of rising above even his own expectations for what he might accomplish in his lifetime, his inventions are also among countless contributions black people have made to the quality of life enjoyed not just in the United States, but around the world, and often without recognition outside their immediate social sphere. 

This month, we reflect on the weight of that collective history and recognize the impact it’s had on the evolution of our culture. 


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