Who knew that a climber's accident and desire to return to his sport would some day benefit wounded soldiers?
Hugh Herr, once a leading climber, appeared in Esquire's recent theme Genius Issue, credited for being at the forefront of the prosthetics field.
Prosthetic innovation is always dominant during and immediately following a war, Herr said. About 600 soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan have lost limbs, he said.
Herr, 42, has visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center three times, and will begin working with Iraq vets this spring. An associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, he directs the lab's Biomechatronics Group, which has developed the Rheo Knee, a biohybrid merging synthetics with the proximal human part. The Rheo Knee uses a microprocessor to learn a user's gait, and respond to changes in speed, weight loading and terrain. Hundreds of knees have been sold, including a number to injured soldiers, some of whom have even returned to the war zone on them.
Herr knows his field all too well. At 17, he was considered one of the best rock climbers on the East Coast. For the spring 1982 he had hoped to free the Shawangunks aid route Twilight Zone, potentially harder than anything yet done at the New York area. In January, however, he and a friend climbed the ice route Odell Gully (WI 3) on Mount Washington, New Hampshire, in blizzard conditions and became lost. Three days later they were rescued, but both suffered amputations due to frostbite. Hugh lost his lower legs from four inches below the knee. Worse, they learned that a rescuer, Albert Dow, had died searching for them.
Always gifted with great powers of concentration, Hugh learned to climb again, both by physical application and tinkering with his artificial feet with increasing levels of sophistication. He put up the first ascents of Condemned Man (5.12 R), Vandals (5.13) and Sticky Bun Power (5.12 R) in the Gunks; as well as the FAs of Fortitude (5.12 R) and Stage Fright (5.12c X), North Conway. (He climbed Stage Fright ground up, only rappelling to retrieve gear; just three other climbers are known to have led the route since, none matching the style.) Herr also succeeded on the second free ascent of City Park (5.13c), Index, Washington.
Struck by the lack of refinement in lower-limb prostheses, he began to study biology and engineering on his own. He enrolled in college, which led to graduate study at MIT.
While Herr's goals were once rooted in climbing, today they involve developing implants that communicate with the nervous system, and biohybrid limbs that move like biological ones and even attach to bone.
So how did he feel about being called a genius? Herr jokes, It's about time.