Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

2007

Hugh Herr

Dr. Hugh Herr receives the Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment for his pioneering work in new prosthetics that merge body and machine.

An MIT professor, researcher and inventor, Dr. Hugh Herr is pioneering revolutionary work in the emerging field of biomechatronics - technology that marries robotics and human biomechanics. A double amputee himself, he is responsible for breakthrough advances in prosthetics and orthotics, giving greater mobility and new hope to those with physical disabilities.

There was a time that prostheses were hampering devices, causing jerky movements and unnecessary exertion for their users. Each unit had to be oriented to the individual, by a professional, and based on stride length, weight, flexion and other measurements. Even after all of this, the resultant stride was rigidly the same, whether the wearer was walking, running or climbing rocks.

And that brings us to Hugh Herr, who at age 17 became one of those statistics. He lost both of his legs below the knees following a rock climbing accident on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It was his personal experience with prostheses that spurred him to focus his talents on improving the movement of disabled individuals through enhanced artificial limbs.

He returned to the classroom after a few years to earn an undergraduate degree in physics, a master's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard. Today, directing the Biomechatronics Group within MIT's Media Lab, his work focuses on human amplification and rehabilitation systems - technologies that interact with human limbs that amplify function.

With more than 36,000 new amputees in the United States every year - including hundreds of American soldiers who have lost limbs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 - Dr. Herr is helping improve mobility and enhance the quality of life for many physically challenged people around the world. The holder (or co-holder) of numerous patents, including the Computer-Controlled Artificial Knee (commercially available as the Rheo Knee), the Active Ankle-Foot Orthosis, and the world's first Powered Ankle-Foot Prosthesis, he is advancing an emerging field of science that applies the principles of muscle mechanics, neural control and human biomechanics to guide the design of biomimetic robots, human rehabilitation devices and other technologies.

Given the high number of U.S. soldiers returning home with crippling injuries, the Department of Veterans Affairs is funding a $7.2 million research project involving Dr. Herr's group to develop new technologies for amputees, specifically "biohybrid limbs" made up of regenerated tissue, lengthened bone, titanium bone implants, implantable neural sensors and external robotic limbs.

Dr. Hugh Herr is not simply an example of the human spirit overcoming adversity; his work is a triumph of intellect and innovation over what has scarcely been imagined. His breakthrough advances in rehabilitation technologies are immeasurably improving the quality of life for thousands of people with physical challenges.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.

Speech

10/22/2007 - Acceptance Speech


It is indeed a tremendous honor to receive the Heinz Award. Thank you Teresa Heinz and thank you to all the members of the Heinz Family Foundation for this prestigious award.

Like all people, I do not operate in isolation, I do not work in isolation, but rather I gain tremendous support from many people.

Therefore, with utter humility, I would like to include in this honor my many students and colleagues for their kind support and inspiration throughout these years.

I'd also like to thank my mother and father, who are here tonight, John and Martha Herr, for bestowing upon me the simple idea that there's no obstacle too great when confronted with the power of the human spirit.

I'd also like to thank my beloved wife, Patricia, who's also here this evening, and our two lovely girls, Alexandra and Sage Dylan. My experience of joy and beauty is inexplicably tied to you.

I'd also like to thank Albert Dow who volunteered to walk into that horrible blizzard on Mount-Washington in search of two lost boys.

Nearly half of the world's population suffers from some form of cognitive, emotional or physical disability. One of the great challenges of this century will be to advance technological interventions to improve the quality of life of the disabled, not only in developed nations, but across the entire world's population. Indeed, I feel great joy and privilege to make a small contribution to this effort, this global effort, for there is no greater gift than the gift of giving back.

Thank you.
Hugh Herr
Hugh Herr