Nothing could be worse than waking up with a missing body part. After a hiking mishap in which he suffered from frostbite, both of Hugh’s legs had to be amputated. He was only 17 years old with an illustrious climbing career ahead of him; considered a child prodigy, Hugh had shown climbing skills as early as seven and eight years old. But losing his legs at 17 seemed like a nightmarish ending to a once-promising career.
Hugh did not settle for the rigid prosthetics he was given. Refusing to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Hugh did all he could to bring justice to the death of Albert Dow, one of the volunteers who participated in his rescue. Hugh could not stand the thought of having someone pay for his life when all he would become was an amputee. He almost felt responsible for Albert Dow’s death, and the least he could do to honor him was make the most of the second chance at life he was given.
From then on, he turned his life around. He studied diligently, something he did not do much before the incident. His amputation gave him the push he needed to discover his gifts; when, at first, he dreamt only of becoming a famous climber, his amputation fuelled him to create prosthetics tailored for amputees like him who used to be physically active.
He succeeded. Now, we have bionic prosthetics, which are contraptions that work like genuine extensions of missing body parts. Their purpose is to augment the body of its shortages without compromising remaining limbs. Traditional prosthetics were rigid and did not make life comfortable for their users; often, amputees who used traditional prosthetics later had to endure surgeries to correct the torn bone and tissue the prosthetics caused.
With Hugh’s inventions, individuals who have no legs can again feel what it’s like to walk normally. They adjust well with the body, as they are powered by batteries and run by computers. As far as Hugh is concerned, his bionic legs work so well he wouldn’t trade them for his biological legs.
A Rock-Climbing Prodigy
Hugh Herr came from a family of Mennonites; their faith is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, and they are considered pacifists. Hans Herr, his great-great-great grandfather, is said to have come from Europe. His family fled from persecution and famine and he led their community to Lancaster, an area of Philadelphia, during the 18th century. That community still exists today, and Hugh’s older brother, Hans XII, was named after their ancestor.
Hugh, who was born on October 25th, 1964, has two brothers and two sisters. As a young boy, Hugh was a deep thinker; when he turned seven years old, he began to realize his love for the outdoors and genuine interest in climbing. His father, John, would always take his three sons with him for climbs, and Hugh always looked forward to such activities. He wanted adventure, and climbing gave him the rush.
Hugh was only eight years old when he successfully climbed the 11,627-foot-high Mount Temple, and his brother, Tony, was there to witness it. John was content to let his sons do the things they wanted, as he preferred that they learn from experience. When they were young, he taught them about learning from experience by showing what rat poison can do to a human being. Burning their mouths in the demonstration was worth it as the boys not only learned the dangers of ingesting poison, but also grew up unafraid to take risks.
After the historic climb, John further indulged his son’s passion and allowed him to continue climbing in his teens. As a teenager, Hugh had little inhibition; he sometimes climbed without harnesses and used his bare hands. His fame then escalated when he conquered the most challenging terrain of Shawangunk Ridge [south of Albany] where no one before had ever set foot.
Soon, even senior climbers deferred to him as his raw energy and hunger for adventure continued to push him forward. Jeff Batzer, a fellow climbing enthusiast, was three years his senior, yet had great respect for the younger Hugh, who was apparently more experienced than he.
Jeff and Hugh became good friends and climbed together often. Hugh had little interest in school; he opted to go to a vocational school so he could have more time to climb, which took a toll on his grades. He got Ds and Fs in most subjects. He was not bothered, however, because he wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of going to college. Climbing was his end-all, be-all.
He started the year 1982 with plans of climbing. He was 17 years old at the time, and already regarded as one of his country’s best climbers. He had a bright future ahead of him.
It was a cold Saturday morning when they began climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire; little did they know that an avalanche was waiting to happen. The winds were calm, but Mount Washington is known for erratic weather conditions. Close to mid-morning, the winds began to pick up speed. Hugh did not panic, so Jeff assumed that everything was normal and under control. Ten minutes later, however, the winds got even stronger, causing the temperature to drop drastically. The two were no longer talking, each lost in his own thoughts.
With about 1,000 feet left to climb out of 6,000, they decided to keep going, but ran into a whiteout. Blindly finding their way out, they crawled across the frozen Peabody River, but Hugh stepped on thin ice and was instantly soaked in freezing-cold water from the waist down. He got out, but the two spent the entire night in a cove.
The following morning, they kept going. Hugh, however, was too weak to continue. He could hardly move his legs. They came across another cove and rested, clinging to each other for warmth. The intense cold took its toll mentally as well as physically as they stayed there for another day. By Monday, Hugh was completely exhausted; Jeff went to call for help, but to no avail. The two were convinced there was no way they would come out alive. Hugh saw his life flash before his eyes in a near-death experience.
Although Jeff and Hugh were unaware, a rescue mission had been organized to look for them. The avalanche, while sparing the two, took the life of Albert Dow, one of the rescue volunteers. As the rescue team had no luck finding them, Melissa "Cam" Bradshaw, a snowshoer, came upon their tracks and was able to locate their cove. Jeff and Hugh were then taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital.
The doctors did their best to save his legs, but they were severely frostbitten with no circulation of blood. That part of his body was clinically dead. Both of his legs were later amputated at a Philadelphia hospital, to where he was transferred after doctors at Littleton did all they could do. What made it worse for Hugh was knowing a life was lost in an attempt to save his.
Hugh Starts Climbing Again
Hugh mourned Albert’s death for two years; the 28-year-old had already been planning his wedding when the avalanche took his life. For two years, there was not a day that Hugh did not cry for him. Jeff, meanwhile, had lost the lower part of his left leg, all the toes on his right foot and all the fingers on his right hand.
Hugh hated his imported prosthetics, as they did not feel right or even seem useful. Above all, it was impossible to climb with them. However, just because Hugh lost his legs did not mean he was ready to give up climbing.
Hugh may not have done well in school, but he was a decent mechanic, and did well in his mechanic classes. He fashioned his first climbing prosthetics using whatever he could find at home; when he discovered that being amputated had made him lighter, he believed it possible to refine his prosthetics to make them extensions of his body and help him become a better climber.
To do that, though, he had to take school seriously. He enrolled at Millersville University and pursued a degree in Physics to, for the time being, take his mind off climbing. He worked with a Pennsylvanian doctor, Barry Gosthnian, who inspired him to take prosthetics to the next level. His first patent was a socket developed by the two.
Foray Into Prosthetics
He continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he pursued a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. While there, he became a scientist in his own right and earned fellowship at MIT. He then pursued his Doctorate studies at Harvard University.
Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab’s founder, hired him to head the Biomechatronics research team. According to their website:
"First, we seek to restore function to individuals who have impaired mobility due to trauma or disease through research and development. Second, we develop technologies that augment human performance beyond what nature intends.
These objectives are met by combining the scientific discipline of organismal and cellular neuromechanics with the technological discipline of bionic device design. Our research staff and students include biomechanists, neuroscientists, and biophysicists as well as electrical, mechanical, biomedical, and tissue engineers." (SOURCE: MIT Media Lab)
Eventually, through the use of biomechanics, Hugh achieved the kind of prosthetics he had always wanted. The bionic legs he wears don’t give away his condition; in fact, they come as a shock to his students whenever he shows them off at the end of the semester. They could not believe their professor was a double amputee.
His inventions include ankle-foot prosthesis, the “Rheo Knee” and the “PowerFoot One,” the first prosthesis which allows for a normal gait. He now has his own company, “iWalk,” which partnered with “No Barriers Boston” to further help amputees live normal lives.
It was as if losing his legs awoke Hugh from a deep sleep; now that he’s awake, he’s changing the history of prosthetics one step at a time.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- No Barriers Boston
- Veterans Administration
- MIT Media Lab
- MIT Mechatronics research team (Director)
- Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation (Associate Editor)
- National Institute of Health
- National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation
- Journal of Experimental Biology
- International Journal of Robotics Research
- IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering
- Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences
Awards and Achievements
- 1989: Inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame
- 1990: Received the “Young American Award” and included on the United States College Academic Team
- 2003: Included in Science magazine’s “Next Wave: Best of 2003”
- 2004: Invention (computer-controlled knee) was named among the “Top Ten Inventions” in the health category by TIME magazine
- 2004: Received a $7.2 million grant from the US Department of Veterans Affairs to create "biohybrid" limbs
- 2004: Became an MIT professor
- 2005: Received the “Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Leadership Award”
- 2006: Founded his own company, “iWalk”
- 2007: Invention (robotic ankle-foot) was named among the “Top Ten Inventions” in the health category by TIME magazine
- 2007: Received “13th Heinz Award” in Technology, the Economy and Employment
- 2008: Received “Spirit of Da Vinci Award” and “Action Maverick Award”
- 2011: Named the “Leader of the Bionic Age” by TIME Magazine
- 2012: Featured on CNN's “The Next List”
- By age eight, he had scaled the face of the 11,627-foot (3,544 m) Mount Temple
- Acknowledged as one of the best climbers in the United States at 17 years old
- The first person with a major amputation to perform in a sport alongside elite, able-bodied athletes Holder/co-holder of more than 10 patents
- Published over 60 peer-reviewed papers in the field of rehabilitation science
- Created the world's first powered ankle-foot prosthesis
- Created the world's first prosthesis to allow for a normal gait (Powerfoot One)
- Launched “No Barriers Boston”
- Spoke at the fourth World Congress of Biomechanics, the International Conference on Advanced Prosthetics, National Assembly of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, World Economic Forum, Google Zeitgeist, Digital Life Design, and the TEDMED Conference
Wikipedia (Hugh Herr)
Boston Magazine (Best Foot Forward)
TEDMED (Hugh Herr)
The Heinz Awards (Dr. Hugh Herr)
CNN (Coming up on 'The Next List': Hugh Herr, Bionic man)
ClimbingWashington.com (A Walk In The Park)
Esquire (Hugh Herr's New Parts)
MIT Media Lab (Hug Herr)
MIT Media Lab Mechatronics (About)
MIT Media Lab Mechatronics (People)
The Wall Street Journal (The Weekend Interview With Hugh Herr: The Liberating Age of Bionics)
Men's Fitness (Hugh Herr: Reinventing the Human Machine)