A feat of design

Peter Williams
At the age of 17, American Hugh Herr suffered frostbite to his legs during a disastrous mountain climb. His legs were badly injured and doctors had to remove them below the knees. Months later Herr was climbing again using artificial legs. But these legs were not suitable to mountain climbing. So Herr decided to build a new pair of legs. He then chose to study science so he could design better artificial legs. He is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he continues to create artificial legs. Herr has won many awards for his work.
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Peter Williams on 06/07/2012
Hugh Herr using prosthetics to scale an indoor climbing wall in the Media Lab.
Hugh Herr Wall climbing

Herr at a demonstation in the Media Lab.

In 1982, at the age of 17 gifted mountain climber Hugh Herr experienced a life-changing event. While climbing Mount Washington in the USA, the American climber became trapped in a snow cave by a blizzard. Herr was rescued but suffered severe frostbite to his legs. After months of therapy doctors gave up trying to save his legs and amputated them below the knee. The accident, though tragic, set Herr on a path that could change the lives of people who use prosthetic limbs.

A new beginning

Within months of having his legs amputated Herr was using prosthetics to climb again. But he thought the prosthetics given to him were crude devices and unsuitable for mountain climbing. So Herr decided to build new ones. He built legs that could extend like telescopes making it possible for him to reach otherwise inaccessible footholds.

After this successful experience Herr decided to dedicate his life to designing better prosthetic limbs. He went on to earn a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), followed by a PhD in biophysics from Harvard.

Important research

Today Herr is an associate professor in media arts and sciences at MIT's Media Lab. The Media Lab conducts multi-disciplinary research into new and emerging technologies. Herr is head of the biomechatronics department. Biomechatronics combines the study of mechanics, electronics, and biology. By merging these three elements together, researchers aim to create robotic devices that can assist people with movement disorders.

Scientists at the Media Lab have an unorthodox approach to research. They work atelier style, which is a method used in artistic workshops where apprentices and students work under a master craftsman.

Herr uses himself as a guinea pig to test his designs. As strange as this sounds, this may be an advantage for his research. Herr can feel how a prosthetic unit is working instead of relying on others to describe how prosthesis affects their gait.

IWalk and recognition

In 2006 Herr founded and became the chief technology officer of iWalk. The company iWalk was founded with a grant from the US Department of Veterans Affairs with the aim of providing excellent prosthetics for veterans who have lost limbs. The prosthetics are available to others but at a large expense unless covered by insurance.

One of IWalk's creations is the BiOM foot. It is the first artificial foot that actively propels its wearer forward. The BiOM foot has a computer that adjusts its motion to match the user's gait. Its settings can be changed with a blue tooth mobile phone.

Herr has won numerous awards for his work. 'Time' magazine included Herr's prosthetic designs twice in its top ten inventions of the year. In 2008 he also received the International Spirit of Da Vinci award. The award recognises innovations in assistive technology that enhance the lives of people with a disability.

More to achieve

Herr is often asked if he wants to help elite amputee athletes run faster by designing new limbs. Herr is intensely interested in this area of research. But the prostheses that enable amputee sprinters to challenge able-bodied competitors are markedly different to those designed for everyday use. Herr has limited time and resources and says it is more important to improve the lives of patients with more basic needs.

Herr wants to design prosthesis that blend seamlessly with the human body. He believes prosthetic technology will advance to the extent that some people with a disability will be thought of as cyborgs instead of people with a disability. He says he is only limited by the laws of physics and his imagination.

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