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Vol. LXII, No. 3
February 5, 2010

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Anything Is Possible
MIT’s Herr Works to Make Physical Disabilities a Thing Of the Past

On the front page...

NIMH’s Innovation Speaker Series is intended to bring astounding people to NIH to offer lectures, but few speakers leave audiences with the feeling of awe that the institute’s guest, Dr. Hugh Herr of MIT, did recently.

“Some time ago, I attended a workshop and we talked about the traits of innovative, creative people,” said Dr. David Armstrong of NIMH in his introduction of Herr. “The characteristic that stuck with me most was this ability and willingness to persist and persevere even when obstacles appear to be insurmountable. That’s Hugh Herr.”


  Dr. Hugh Herr of MIT  
  Dr. Hugh Herr of MIT  
Within 30 seconds of starting his talk, Herrnot only acknowledged, but seemed to welcome, the 800-pound gorilla in the room—the matter of his legs.

Standing in front of the podium and facing the audience with a quiet resolve, Herr stated plainly, “I stand before you supported entirely by artificial means.”

Wearing a pair of active prosthetics that no one would suspect were under his pant legs had he not said so, Herr said he does not see himself as disabled.

“I have a condition just as a person with eyeglasses has a condition,” he said, noting that he saw many people wearing glasses in the audience and that no one would consider labeling those people disabled. “We’re at that point because of good technology that my condition is not a disability.”

Herr is a somewhat unlikely pioneer. As an unexceptional high school student who was more focused on the outdoors than on his textbooks, he was a risk-taker who thought life was just one wilderness adventure after another. Everything changed when a 1982 mountain climbing trip took a wrong turn and he and a friend became stranded in freezing temperatures for 4 days with no shelter. Following a tragic rescue that killed a volunteer, Herr landed in the hospital. Severe frostbite eventually required that both of his legs be amputated below the knee.

What followed was a painful personal journey that transformed Herr into one of the world’s foremost scientists in the field of prosthesis and orthosis—artificial limbs and joints that give back true functionality of the limb to the wearer.

Not long after his fateful incident, Herr wanted nothing more than to get back on the horse, or mountain, as it were. So he headed into the machine shop and started crafting his first active prosthetics. By not trying to duplicate the missing portions of his legs, he found that he could craft anything his mind imagined, including artificial limbs that could let him climb higher and with greater ease than before the accident.

Dr. Hugh Herr, director of the biomechatronics group within MIT’s Media Lab and a double amputee, says he would never consider himself disabled. He foresees a world in which disabilities
are rendered obsolete with the aid of technology.
Dr. Hugh Herr, director of the biomechatronics group within MIT’s Media Lab and a double amputee, says he would never consider himself disabled. He foresees a world in which disabilities are rendered obsolete with the aid of technology.

Fascinated by the possibilities of what technology could offer humankind, Herr’s life course was then set. After a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in mechanical engineering, Herr’s Ph.D. in biophysics brought everything together for him. He now leads the biomechatronics group within MIT’s Media Lab and has served on research review panels for numerous organizations, including NIH.

Herr, a soft-spoken, gentle man whose understated way of explaining the mechanics of prosthetic science impressed the Neuroscience Center audience, seemed almost unfazed by the magnitude of the research he was presenting and what it means for people with physical challenges who’ve had few choices when it comes to regaining their mobility. That is, until now.

Amputees who can walk naturally again. Stroke victims who regain their pre-stroke strides with the help of science. Technology and nature working seamlessly to erase disability. Truly, it’s mind-boggling stuff, but Herr talked about it with all the grace of a guy who’s been able to see incredible potential because he’s often his own test subject.

“It’s good to mess with people’s minds and their labels” about disability, Herr said. “We’re at a point in history where we’re going through a shift in consciousness. We’re blurring the boundaries between disabled and abled, and beyond that, augmentation.”

Herr dreams of a world in which disability is largely eliminated because of technology and people are able to achieve more with the aid of adaptable, technological helpers. This means help not only for amputees, but also for stroke and accident victims and people with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy for whom movement is difficult.

“I think in this century we’ll largely eliminate disability through a sophisticated machine-human interaction,” he said. “You can call them extreme interfaces.”

Think Star Wars or the Six Million Dollar Man and you’ll get the idea.

But Herr also sees applications to protect the elderly or others who may be unsteady on their feet. He said the annual cost of falls approaches that of cancer, in terms of suffering, treatment and recovery.

“We have technology now to make this table smart—that senses the fall and becomes as soft as pillows. Same for bathtubs and tile floors,” he said.

For now, Herr is focused on advancing prosthetic science ever further, examining what could make orthoses more natural, more effective, more useful. The mountains he scales these days are conceptual as he tries to realize his goals.

“We ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said. NIHRecord Icon

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