Why this bionic limb pioneer doesn't believe in disability

Fiona Govan
Fiona Govan - [email protected]
Why this bionic limb pioneer doesn't believe in disability
Hugh Herr has been award Spain's top science prize. Photo: FPA

Hugh Herr, this year's winner of Spain's top science prize, tells The Local how a tragic accident transformed him from a lazy student to a scientific pioneer and why he really doesn't like the term 'disabled'.


When Hugh Herr was a teenager he had only one ambition.

"I wanted to be the best rock climber in the world," the 51-year old scientist told The Local in a telephone interview from his office at MIT in Boston.

He was well on his way to achieving that goal when in January 1982, aged 17, he and his friend Jeff set out to climb Mount Washington.

But as the weather turned for the worse, the pair became caught in a blizzard with 100 mp/h winds and temperatures below -21C, and they lost their way.

Almost four days later, after huddling together in snow caves in an attempt to stay alive, they were discovered by a snowshoer and airlifted to hospital both suffering hypothermia.

Herr lost both his legs below the knee to frostbite and weeks later was fitted with clumsy acrylic prosthetics.

He was told that, in time and with rehabilitation, he would learn to walk again.

But his climbing days were over.

That moment was a game-changer and rather than be labelled as "disabled" Herr decided to do everything he could to overcome what he calls his "condition".

"I don’t use the word ‘disability’," he said emphatically.  "I use the word ‘unusual’. Just because someone has an unusual body or mind it doesn’t make them disabled.

"I have a condition of limb amputation but I don't see it as a disability."

Herr, who described himself as "a flunky" at school underwent a complete transformation.

"Before the accident I had no ambition in the realm of academia. I was terrible at school and got very very poor grades. I probably would have ended up working in construction or in a machine shop," he laughed.

"But all that changed. After the accident I became intrigued by the notion of augmenting human capability through bionics. That passion fuelled a desire to pursue maths, physics and engineering," he explained.

Determined to carry on rock climbing he designed his own specialized prostheses with the notion:"Why can’t synthetic limbs outperform biological ones".

Titanium-spiked feet enable him to ascend steep ice walls, prosthetic feet with high tow stiffness made it possible to perch on a cliff edge the width of a coin.

 "I was actually able to climb at a more advanced level with artificial limbs than I'd achieved before my accident," he said.

"This was very motivating for me and it set me on a life-long mission to advance technology not only for myself but for many people."

Watch his inspiring Ted Talk:

Herr went on to get his Master's in mechanical engineering from MIT, a PhD in biophysics from Harvard, and then a postdoctorate back at MIT.

Herr is now head of the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab- which specialises in disruptive technologies - and has also founded a company called BionX.

"It’s funny because when I attended my high school class reunion people looked at me and said 'what happened to you?'," he recalls. "But they were not referring to my limb loss, rather my improved intellect; I was such a flunky in high school."

This week he was named as the winner of Spain’s prestigious Princess of Asturias award  for Technical and Scientific Research forhis work in marrying human physiology with electromechanics to create "the world's most sophisticated artificial limbs."

It is, he told The Local, "a remarkable honour".

"I’ve known about the award for many years and I was quite moved actually. It’s a remarkable honour and I hope it will shed light on the global mission to end disability in the 21st century through technological innovation.

"It is the goal that I am articulating for the entire field. It will take many many researchers but I think it is achievable in this 21st century. I am calling to arms the world's intellects to solve the problem of disability."

The prize, which will be awarded at a ceremony in Oviedo in October, will also give Herr the opportunity to return to Spain, a place he remembers fondly after cycling a part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago.

"I’ve heard the Picos d’Europa have some great climbing so it would be great to do some while I am there," he said.

"I love Spain, its culture, its food and its people, so I am really looking forward to another visit."


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