Before Hugh Herr was known for creating some of the world’s most advanced prosthetic limbs, he was known as the kid on his way to becoming one of the best rock climbers in the world.
By age 8, “Hugh had scaled a face of the 11,627-foot Mount Temple in southern Alberta,” Eric Adelson wrote in Boston Magazine. Later, he began climbing without a rope, ascending tough climbing routes, some of which no adult had ever done before, according to Adelson. By the time he was a teenager, Herr was one of the top rock climbers on the East Coast, according to Rock and Ice magazine.
In January 1982, Herr, then 17, and a friend, Jeff Batzer, age 20, set out to climb Mount Washington. What began as an ascent in reasonable weather suddenly transformed into a trudge through 100-mile-per-hour winds with an intense minus 110 Fahrenheit windchill, Adelson wrote.
Disorientation caught them, and after Herr took a fall in a river, the two were stranded on the “wilderness side of Mount Washington,” Herr told Jothy Rosenberg in the show “Who Says I Can’t.”
“We survived by building snow caves and hugging each other to stay warm,” he said.
Eventually, the cold took over. “When you’re hypothermic, one cannot think clearly. So even though we were approaching four days, we thought we were still in the same 24-hour day,” Herr told Rosenberg.
Hypothermia gave way to surrender. “We were no longer able to walk. We just gave up all hope and we actually stopped hugging each other to stay warm,” Herr told Rosenberg. “We just reasoned the sooner we die, the better,” he said.
They were eventually discovered by a snowshoer, and that evening they were airlifted to a hospital. Weeks later, Herr lost his legs to frostbite. While the loss of a limb was traumatic, Herr was more upset by the death of a volunteer lost in an avalanche while looking for the boys. Herr said: “That information, along with the whole trauma of the ordeal, was very, very difficult to deal with.”
“That was the No. 1 thing that got him to be so passionate about making a difference,” his sister told Rosenberg.
Herr woke up after surgery 14 pounds lighter, missing everything below both knees, Adelson wrote. “A nurse told me that I would be able to walk with these things called artificial legs,” Herr said in a clip from the documentary Ascent.
Walk, not climb, they said.
He was given crude plaster of Paris legs and eventually acrylic ones, Adelson wrote.
“They were far more rudimentary than I had hoped they would be,” Herr told REEL Entrepreneurs. “I basically said, ‘This is it? Are you kidding me?'”
Despite doctor’s orders, he took to local mountains. Adelson wrote:
He made rock cliffs his first lab, chiseling and whittling his limbs right there in the woods and on the rock face as he went. He noticed his body got colder and achier as he climbed but his legs did not. He was able to move faster and higher than before, in part because the amputations had left him 14 pounds lighter. And up there on the mountain that day, Herr made a leap that changed his life and may someday change yours: Why can’t fake limbs outperform real ones?
Herr realised that there was no reason that his new feet needed to mimic his old ones. He could cut off a heel to reduce weight, increase his legs’ stiffness where it was useful, add spikes for ice climbing, or make feet narrow enough to stick in small cracks.
“My climbing colleagues first labelled me as ‘courageous,’ which is always very demeaning,” Herr said.
After a year, Herr’s climbing was “better than ever,” according to Rosenberg.
“I began ascending rock faces that I actually could not have ascended before the accident with biological legs,” he said in Ascent.
Herr was good, but many thought he was too good. “The second I became competitive, I became a threat,” Herr told Rosenberg. “I had a few people threaten to amputate their own limbs to achieve the same advantage,” he said.
He couldn’t stop laughing. “It was music to my ears,” he said.
Herr was always an intensely curious child. He could sit for hours staring into space, rocking back and forth, just thinking, he told Boston Magazine. “I had an intense ability to hold a thought,” he said.
Still, he had never been “much of a student” in high school, according to Rosenberg.
“My goal prior to the accident was to be the best mountain climber in the world. I had no interest in even going to college,” Herr told REEL Entrepreneurs.
After the success with his artificial climbing limbs, Herr decided to attend college where he enrolled in maths and science courses. He was on a mission, he told Rosenberg, “to advance technology not only for myself, but for everyone.”
In college Herr had his “intellectual birth,” falling in love with physics, he told Boston Magazine. He eventually began working with a local prosthesist in effort to improve how prosthetic legs attached to their wearers, Adelson wrote.
Herr went on to get his Master’s in mechanical engineering from MIT, a PhD in biophysics from Harvard, and then a postdoc back at MIT.
Today, Herr is the director of biomechatronics at MIT, where he established the Center For Extreme Bionics, which concentrates on lower body prosthetics like knees, ankles, and hips.
“The mission of the center is to put forth fundamental science and technological capability that will allow the biomechatronic and regenerative repair of humans across a broad range of brain and body disabilities,” Herr said at the most recent TED conference.
At that conference he gave “the first demonstration of a running gait under neural command,” showing off a pair of BiOM prosthetics. The prosthetics have the ability to interact with both the body and the surrounding environment in, perhaps, the most natural way yet.
The center also designs products that improve movement of those with biological limbs including “the first exoskeleton in history that actually augments human walking,” which you can see below. The skeleton so severely reduces energy use that “when a normal, healthy person wears the device for 40 minutes and then takes it off, their own biological legs feel ridiculously heavy and awkward,” he said at the TED conference.
But Herr and his team are far from finished. “We want to go a step further,” he said. They want to completely close the loop between man and machine so that those missing limbs “will not only have synthetic limbs that move like flesh and bone, but actually feel like flesh and bone.”
Today, they continue to push the boundaries of what prosthetics can do.
“We the people need not accept our limitations, but can transcend disability through technological innovation,” Herr said at TED. “Indeed, through fundamental advances in bionics in this century, we will set the technological foundation for an enhanced human experience, and we will end disability.”
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