By Charles P. Pierce
You can barely hear him over the hum of the machines, a low thrumming that
is general throughout the halls and laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology. You have to lean forward a little when Hugh Herr talks about the
arms and legs that he makes here in the MIT Media Lab, during a time in which
deceitful politics and bloody bungling have turned the United States into a
boom market for prosthetics. Improvements in body armor protect the torso but
do nothing for the limbs, and hundreds of Americans have now returned from the
excellent adventure in Mesopotamia with less of themselves than they took over
there. Which is partly why there is a sudden boom of interest in the work that
Hugh Herr is doing in his quiet way in the hush of his lab, and generally in a
culture in which informed awareness of prosthetics had not heretofore advanced
a great distance from Captain Ahab.
"It's an interesting time in history for us," Herr says.
"There's a lot of funding now for prosthetics. Over the past several years,
some critical areas relative to prosthetics have matured-tissue engineering,
robotics machinery, the field of neuroprostheses.
We've begun to blur the boundaries between humans and devices, and that will
lead to a profound clinical effect for people with physical
In the past six years, among its other breakthroughs, Herr's Biomechatronics
Group at MIT has developed a prosthetic knee that employs adaptive technology
in order to fully integrate the device into the natural functioning of the leg.
The "Rheo Knee" is a singular accomplishment, and it is the best
demonstration of what have come to be called "biohybrids," machines
that interface closely with the human machine to which they are attached.
What Herr is aiming for is "to develop a strategy for limb replacement
that is a true replacement."
That Herr's interest in the field is not purely academic is obvious from the
odd angular cast of his own lower body. In 1982, he was an indifferent high
school student in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was mad for rock climbing. In
fact, Herr enrolled in a local vocational school only because it left him
enough free time in the day to climb. One day, he was caught in a blizzard on
the slopes of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. He lost both legs below the
knee to frostbite. A man named Albert Dow died trying to rescue him. After his
recovery, Herr went back to climbing so enthusiastically that a national
magazine did a cover story on him but concluded that he would wind up an
embittered, legless man working in a machine shop. Instead, he channeled the
same passion that drove his climbing into the engineering and mathematics that
he taught himself during his recuperation. In part, he did so because of a debt
he felt he owed to Albert Dow.