Hugh Herr, who is the director of the Biomechatronics group at MIT’s Media Lab and the founder of iWalk. He invents bionic limbs that move like flesh and bone. Herr lost both of his limbs in a tragic mountain climbing accident. Watch Hugh Herr’s entire story on Sunday March 25 at 2 pm E.T. on CNN.
Coming up on 'The Next List': Hugh Herr, Bionic man
Hugh Herr believes there's no such thing as disability -- only bad technology.
The double-amputee says the bionic limbs he’s inventing will transform the way amputees experience their lives, will revolutionize sports and predicts the advancement of limb technology will change the psychology of disability.
He uses words like “sexy”, “cool” and “powerful” to describe his disability.
“I’m often asked if I was granted a wish from a magic fairy, would I wish my biological legs back? And I always say absolutely not,” says Herr. “My bionic limbs are part of my creation. They’re -- they’ve become part of my identity.”
Hugh Herr is the director of the Biomechatronics Group and the MIT Media Lab and the inventor of the first bionic prosthetic leg that feels and acts like a regular leg, and relies on robots to take actual steps. He is the leading expert in the field and he is the subject of most of his research and development because and he is a double amputee.
Herr grew up in a Mennonite family that would take beautiful vacations exploring the outdoors. By age 6, he was a prodigy at rock climbing. It became his passion. But when he was 17 years old, he lost both of his legs in a tragic rock climbing accident. He was caught in a blizzard with a friend, became disoriented and descended into a ravine where he spent days trying to stay warm and stay alive. On day 4 and they were finally found and brought to safety.
During the the search for Hugh Herr and his friend, Albert Dow, was killed in an avalanche. And after extensive medical treatments to save his limbs, doctors finally amputated Herr’s legs below the knee because of severe frostbite and hypothermia. It was life-changing on many levels.
“I thought, well, I have two choices. I can give up and wallow in depression and self pity, or I can really make a best effort, do everything I can to make my life into a positive force, “says Herr. “I thought given Albert Dow’s ultimate sacrifice, I thought of course the right thing to do is to make my life worthwhile, to give it a vector that was positive instead of negative. So that was kind of the underlying emotional theme that really got me out the hospital bed and up onto the mountain face again.”
It also sent Hugh Herr on a journey to start designing better prosthetic limbs. He went to college, received advance degrees from MIT and Harvard in mechanical engineering and biophysics. Herr is changing the way people are experiencing their own disability and he maintains that his prosthetics are actually better and more efficient that human limbs. His outlook on his life, aging, mortality, and aesthetic beauty are all impacted by his experience with prostheses.
Hugh Herr has also founded a company, iWalk, that fits lower limb amputees with bionic ankles called the BIOM. “What we plan to do and will do is systematically build body parts from the ground up literally. So we’re starting with ankles,” says Herr. “Then the next act of iwalk is knees. And after that will be hips. And we’ll just rebuild the human from the ground up.” Herr is still an avid rock climber and owns dozens of different pairs of legs to suit his lifestyle: legs for running, for walking, for climbing, for swimming.
His message to amputees is this: Life doesn’t end when you lose a limb.