The youngest of five siblings from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hugh Herr was a prodigy rock climber: by age eight, he had scaled the face of the 11,627-foot Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies, and by 17 he was acknowledged to be one of the best climbers in the United States.
In January 1982, while attempting to summit Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Herr and a fellow climber Jeff Batzer were caught in a blizzard, experienced white-out conditions, went down the wrong (wilderness) side and were stranded in the woods, with only self-dug snow caves for protection, for three nights in -20F degree temperatures. By the time they were rescued, the climbers had suffered severe frostbite and they had stopped hugging each other for warmth thinking their “time had come”. Both of Herr’s legs had to be amputated below the knees; his companion lost his lower left leg, the toes on his right foot, and the fingers on his right hand. During the rescue attempt, volunteer Albert Dow was killed by an avalanche.
Following months of surgeries and rehabilitation, Herr was doing what doctors told him–and what he himself had thought–was unthinkable: climbing again. Using specialized prostheses that he designed using skills he learned working in a tool and die shop, he created prosthetic feet with high toe stiffness that made it possible to stand on small rock edges the width of a coin, and titanium-spiked feet that assisted him in ascending steep ice walls. He used these prostheses to alter his height to avoid awkward body positions and to grab hand and foot holds previously out of reach. His height could range from five to eight feet. As a result of using the prostheses, Herr climbed at as advanced a level as he had before the accident, making him the first person with a major amputation to perform in a sport on par with elite-level, able-bodied persons.
After his climbing career, Herr began to focus on academics, previously an area of little interest to him. Herr had been in a vocational high school and was never interested in school as it took him away from his passion of climbing. With new focus and determination to work on prosthetics, he earned an undergraduate degree in physics at a local college, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT, followed by a PhD in biophysics from Harvard University. While a postdoctoral fellow at MIT in biomedical devices, he began working on advanced leg prostheses and orthoses–devices that emulate the functionality of the human leg.
Currently, Herr is an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences and in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. As head of the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, he focuses on developing wearable robotic systems that serve to augment human physical capability. Most of what he designs is not for him, but for others to whose difficulties he can relate.
Herr has published over 60 peer-reviewed papers in the field of rehabilitation science and is the holder (or co-holder) of more than 10 patents related to assistive devices, including those for a computer-controlled artificial knee, commercially available as the Rheo Knee an active ankle-foot orthosis, and the world’s first powered ankle-foot prosthesis.
In 2009 Hugh Herr founded iWalk, a startup dedicated to commercializing advanced prosthetics. He maintains his tenured position at MIT and holds the title Chief Technology Officer at iWalk in Cambridge. Recently the company started selling the powered ankle-foot to below-knee amputees and is testing the device for above-knee amputees.
These devices are advancing an emerging field of engineering science that applies principles of biomechanics and neural control to guide the designs of human rehabilitation and augmentative devices. The goal is to rehabilitate individuals that have undergone limb amputation or have suffered a pathology, and also to augment human physical capability for those with normal intact physiologies.
The computer-controlled knee, which is outfitted with a microprocessor that continually senses the joint’s position and the loads applied to the limb, was named to the list of Top Ten Inventions in the health category by TIME magazine in 2004. The robotic ankle-foot prosthesis, which mimics the action of a biological leg and, for the first time, provides transtibial amputees with a natural gait, was named to the same TIME top-ten list in 2007.
Hugh continues to climb at a very high level. Jothy has never rock climbed. See the TV segments below to see what happened.