In the competitive and unforgiving world of research and development, the brilliant scientist Hugh Herr has to satisfy the harshest critic of all: himself.
Dr. Herr leads the field in developing cutting-edge prosthetic limbs and because a tragic mountain climbing accident as a youth caused him to lose his legs below the knees, he tests most of the prototypes on himself. Instead of debilitating him, the 1982 accident gave him a reason to live.
Dr. Herr was caught in a blizzard that left him stranded for three nights in minus 20F degree temperatures as he scaled Mount Washington in New Hampshire. At just 17 year old, he was sure he would die. Though he was rescued, frostbite had caused permanent damage and led to the amputations. Imagining his life was ruined, he was physically – and emotionally – immobilized for a time while struggling to regroup.
An unremarkable student prior to the accident, the tragedy ignited an intellectual curiosity in Dr. Herr that eventually led to advanced degrees at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a rewarding research career devoted to improving the lives of others. Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation, noted these accomplishments when she honored him with the 13th Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment in 2007.
"Everything about Dr. Herr is an expression of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity," she said. "His breakthrough advances in rehabilitation technologies are immeasurably improving the quality of life for thousands of people with physical challenges, but for him, every breakthrough is just an invitation to push harder and do more."
Receiving the Heinz Award was a transformative event. "My secretary said that Teresa Heinz phoned and wanted to speak with me. I thought she was calling to get advice on a family member with some medical issue. In the first 30 seconds of the call, she revealed the prize. I hate to sound trite, but I was indeed speechless. It's such an honor to have received the award. I'll never forget the ceremony," he said.
Not long ago, he traveled back to Pittsburgh to speak about his latest projects at a cityLIVE! event on 'Emerging Medical Technologies.' "Nothing biological on my body is touching the ground," he told the audience as he took the stage. "For the first time in history, no one can tell I am on a biomedical prosthesis."
His now notable career path began out of frustration with the limitations of the prosthetics that were available back then to help him resolve his own needs. He headed to the machine shop and began tinkering. He developed a prosthetic foot that gave him a decided advantage over his classmates at Millersville University, located near his hometown of Lancaster, Pa. The new foot allowed him to alter his height.
"I increased my height every day by one inch. I waited until someone finally noticed – at 8 feet. They said, 'You seem to be getting taller.' I said, 'Of course … college is a growing experience.'"
His motivation to develop pioneering technologies was also driven by his desire to recapture the thrill of climbing mountains. At 17, he was considered one of the best mountain climbers in the country. The specially designed feet he developed enabled him to resume climbing, an activity he has occasionally shared with his young daughters. By age 6, his daughter, Alex, now 8, had climbed all 48 of the highest peaks in New Hampshire's White Mountain range, a feat she accomplished during all four seasons including the unforgiving winter months. His 6-year-old, Sage, is on track to accomplish the same feat. The girls have completed these climbs alongside their mom, Patricia Ellis Herr, who maintains a blog chronicling their activities.
Dr. Herr's name is on 27 patents that he either wrote or co-wrote, including the Rheo-Knee, a computer-controlled artificial knee, the Active Ankle-Foot Orthosis, and the world's first Powered Ankle-Foot Prosthesis that is capable of delivering the high mechanical power and torque of full-bodied human walking.
He holds associate professor positions with both Media Arts and Sciences at MIT and with the MIT-Harvard Division of Health Sciences and Technology. He is also director of the MIT Biomechatronics Group and the founder of the start-up company I Walk, where he is constantly pushing the boundaries of man and device.
Dr. Herr and his research team developed the ankle prosthesis to recognize steps and inclines, designing it to be unlike anything else currently available. "About 100 people have used the device. Most would want to use it as their prosthesis," he said. The research and development cost to produce the ankle was $20 million and took his group 15 years. As with most researchers, he is dependent upon government and venture capital funding. "We're not limited by cool ideas; we’re limited by funds. I spend 80 percent of my time getting money," he said.
Not surprisingly, students contact him every day to join his research team of 12 graduate students and 109 undergrads. He also gets email requests for help from people who have suffered a stroke or amputation. "I try to answer when I can help. It's a little overwhelming."
Using technology that was once imagined only in a Star Wars era, Dr. Herr is developing a bio-directional peripheral neural interface system that wirelessly sends directions from the user's brain to an artificial limb. Describing this as an after-amputation device, Dr. Herr's goal is to find a way to communicate to existing nerves, closing the loop between healing and the device.
"I still have calf muscles and I was able to fire my calf muscle to move my ankle with the new device. When I directed my limb, I almost started crying," he recalled. Further down the line is a regenerative skin product that will allow wearers to feel sensations through their prostheses. The example Dr. Herr offers is the ability to feel sand while walking on the beach.
Because of what he calls his "obsession" with augmenting walking and running activities for people using prosthetics, he has also seen the future for full-bodied athletes. "In the coming decades, we will see people jogging with robotic structures to protect the knees and hips to avoid surgery later in life. If you have a bad knee, you will not have pain when you jog," using exoskeletal devices, which are mechanisms that attach outside the body. In that regard, he already has an advantage over full-bodied people. "My artificial limbs are immortal. They get upgraded every year. When I'm 80, I'll be walking with less energy than you!"
This summer, he was the keynote speaker at the Sensors Expo and Conference in Chicago, an international gathering of 4,000 engineers and scientists engaged in developing sensors and sensor-integrating systems that help the brain detect and channel bodily sensations. In his speech titled Human 2.0, Dr. Herr spoke about his latest technological advancements and how he can help people overcome limitations.
"Most people with unusual conditions are not well served by technology," he said, telling the story of a war veteran who was testing $100,000 worth of equipment while still dependent upon $20 crutches. "We can do a better job to serve these people. With technology, I climb mountains, I run. If you take away the technology, I am immobile. With technology, I am free."