Hugh Herr: Beyond the Merely Human

By Morgan Stanfield

If the power were granted you to break out of your cells... you would dare to be changed, as you are changing now, into the shape you dread, beyond the merely human. -From "King of the River," by Stanley Kunitz, former Poet Laureate of the United States

Hugh Herr, PhD, may carry the world's most intimate knowledge of how O&P devices may take humanity "beyond the merely human." The founder and director of the Biomechatronics Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Herr says that human potential is "the limit to which humanity can apply technology to expand physicality and cognition. Its limits are only physical law and the outer dimensions of our creativity." However, Herr's meditations on human potential long predate his biomechanical engineering career. Decades before, as a child-prodigy rock climber, he began exploring the far reaches of human experience, and then, through tragedy and iron-willed determination, he learned firsthand how technology can transform experience.

Boy Wonder

Born to a Pennsylvania Mennonite family for whom hard work and moral rectitude were first principles of life, the five children of the Herr brood shouldered both farmwork at home and adult-level construction work in their father's building company. During summers, the family would travel the Alaskan and Canadian wildernesses, where Herr and his brothers were let off leash to explore and sometimes even camp out in the deep mountains without their parents. By age seven, Herr was hiking formidable peaks and watching as his older brothers Tony and Hans began to experiment with rock climbing. By age 12, Herr was climbing walls classed at 5.10-expert routes on the Yosemite Decimal System grading scale. By age 15, he was climbing 5.12s-at that time, the toughest grade-and was dubbed "Boy Wonder" by the local climbing crowd.

Death on Mt. Washington

In January 1982, Herr was 17 years old, indifferent to school but possessing a distilled and potent dedication to climbing. On a bitter cold but promising day, he and his friend Jeff Batzer packed up for an ice climbing weekend on Mt. Washington. The peak, New Hampshire's 6,288-footer, is considered the world's most dangerous small mountain. A serial-killer among mountains, its temperatures can drop below -50 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's home to the strongest winds on the planet-its record is a brain-scrubbing 231 miles per hour. The log books of the Mt. Washington Observatory record more than 135 human deaths in about 150 years.

Near dawn on January 23, Herr and Batzer tackled their ice wall, leaving a backpack stuffed with a sleeping bag, food, water, and extra clothes at the wall's base. From long experience, Herr knew the heavy pack could endanger them on the short climb if Mt. Washington decided to throw a storm, rockfall, or avalanche at them while they were climbing.

After topping out, Batzer pressed Herr to try summiting the mountain. The weather looked reasonable, so they set off. Within minutes, Mt. Washington turned on them. Winds picked up, then began to rage, throwing up blinding curtains of snow. The boys attempted to turn back, but wound up heading down the wrong side of the mountain. For uncounted hours, they floundered through chest-high drifts. Twice, Herr felt the ground crumble under him as he fell through the ice shell of frozen creeks, soaking himself to the shins in bitter-cold water.

Stumbling and exhausted from the cold, the boys persevered as darkness fell. They hiked most of the night to keep from freezing to death, but sometime in the darkness, they jerry-rigged a snow shelter and slept briefly before setting out again. Sometime after dawn, Herr again fell through ice and soaked his legs. His frozen feet soon lost their ability to balance, driving the young men to shelter under a rock.

At the mountain's foot, rescuers set out for them in the deadly weather. In one of the cruelties Mt. Washington is known for, an avalanche wiped two of the rescuers off the trail. One, a likeable, dedicated young man named Albert Dow, died.

Another Siberian-cold night fell and ended. By the next morning, Herr and Batzer were near death under their rock-severely frostbitten, dehydrated, and three days without food. However, a moment of extraordinary serendipity folded its wings around them. A lone snowshoer spotted their strange, halting tracks, traced them back to the shelter, and sent for help. Nearly four days after setting out on one of the deadliest mountains in the world, they were airlifted to a hospital.

A long and agonizing recovery awaited them. Perhaps most painful to Herr was the overwhelming shame and guilt he felt over the death of Albert Dow, and for needing to be rescued at all, according to Alison Osius, author of Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr. It felt like a violation of everything he held sacred as an outdoorsman and as a human being. And his feet-so precious to a climber-began succumbing to gangrene. After seven limb-salvage surgeries, both were amputated six inches below the knees. Batzer lost his toes, left foot, and right-hand fingers as well.

The Long Climb Home

Herr's physicians and physical therapists were adamant that he would never climb again. Russ Raffa, one of Herr's longtime friends, says of Herr's state of mind at the time: "Climbing wasn't what Huey did-he was climbing. It was everything in the world to him, and he'd had his world completely shattered."

Still clinging to hope, Herr conditioned himself as if he would climb again, and his family encouraged him. On his first day home from the hospital, he crawled behind the basement staircase and climbed hand over hand up its backside, his truncated legs swinging above the concrete floor.

Mechanical Boy

When Herr received his initial set of prostheses, he immediately tried bouldering in them. Walking in them caused him excruciating pain, but he discovered that climbing in them was possible, and less painful than walking. His first real climb as an amputee, just weeks later, was a 60-ft., 5.9 wall.

When climbing, his new disadvantages were clear-he had very little knee bend or leg rotation, no ankle flex, and zero propulsion in his feet and calves. However, he soon realized that his artificial feet could be modified to give him somewhat different functionality than before. With the help of a friend and his prosthetist, Frank Malone, CPO, he began designing and building radically new climbing feet-some blade-shaped to fit into cracks, some more square to land on ledges. He also experimented with wildly varying leg lengths, from shorties to legs that made him eight feet tall. Each experiment taught him more about his capacities. He began again to climb obsessively, this time with a toolbox of lower appendages. Back among his climbing cohorts, he rapidly redeveloped the skills he needed to tackle the most baroque walls, and Boy Wonder was reincarnated as Mechanical Boy.

Throughout the summer of 1982, Mechanical Boy logged more than twenty 5.11s and 5.12s, including one 5.12-plus. That fall, he and some friends achieved a first ascent on a 5.13, one of the first in the United States to be rated at that grade. Following that triumph, a fellow climber angrily declared that Herr was now "cheating" on these mind-boggling climbs because he could switch feet to fit the climb. Herr's reaction was powerful: "I had despised...pity and being labeled a 'courageous person,' whatever that meant. I completely embraced [that he felt] threatened-actually experienced envy-because it meant to me that I was...so competitive that I was considered a threat."

That year, Herr set a goal: to conquer one of America's most dangerous climbs, New Hampshire's 5.13 "Stage Fright" route. After weeks of work, he triumphed, then shut himself in his bedroom and cried for an entire day-perhaps in relief, or grief at knowing that an era was ending for him. A few days later, he enrolled in Millersville University, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and with seamless grace, dove into studying physics.

The Mother of Invention

In Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Herr began to receive clinical care from Barry Gosthnian, CPO, who was also Batzer's prosthetist. The pain in Herr's residual limbs-always a problem-was becoming intolerable during walking. With Gosthnian's help and cooperation, Herr began working on a solution-a socket containing adjustable hydraulic bladders to soften impact forces on the limb. In May 1990, Herr and Gosthnian received a patent for their socket.

Osius writes that later that year, a friend asked Herr why he had essentially given up climbing. "You have so much talent," she said. "It just seems like you should use it...." He replied, "I don't have to climb to use my talent. I'm not obsessed about the sport of climbing. I'm obsessed about being inspired." That fall, that inspiration proved out, and he was accepted to graduate school at MIT.

Over the following years, Herr earned a master's degree from MIT in mechanical engineering and a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He then completed a post-doctorate in biomedical devices at MIT. There, he applied the focus that had served him so well in climbing to his research.

He focused on O&P devices-developing, among many other innovations, the Rheo Knee, commercialized by Ossur, Reykjavik, Iceland, plus powered-ankle models, AFOs, and robotics. Since 1994, he has been awarded or co-awarded more than a dozen patents, many of which he developed in collaboration with his students in the Biomechatronics Group located within the MIT Media Lab. In 2009, Herr's research group received a $7.4-million grant to create "biohybrid" limbs that include osseointegration and neural controls.

Herr notes that the grant has funded what could be the future of prosthetics: "powered systems for knees and ankles for prosthetics and orthotics. We're also working on whole-leg exoskeletons to augment humans for walking and running. Even for a person with normal 'intact' limbs, it is going to allow them to run with a reduced metabolic cost."

Among those powered systems is the PowerFoot, a powered ankle-foot prosthesis that Herr plans to market through his own company, iWalk, Cambridge, Massachusetts. A 2007 TIME Magazine Invention of the Year, the PowerFoot is now in clinical trials, and early results indicate that it significantly reduces wearers' metabolic costs while increasing their chosen walking speed. It may even bring the metabolic economy of movement above the levels experienced by people with intact limbs, the world's first limb prosthesis to do so. (Editor's note: For more information on the iWalk, read, "PowerFoot: The Next Step in Ankle-Foot Prostheses," The O&P EDGE, November 2007.)

"I started inventing very young," Herr notes, "but it took me two decades to get in a position where I could actually affect the world with my ideas.... Innovation is not trivial, largely because it requires that one wears so many hats. It is not sufficient to only be an inventor to do innovation.... Not all inventors are innovators."

No Barriers

Herr believes that true innovation involves connecting two naturally allied groups that rarely meet-researchers and end-users. He achieves this partly through his involvement with the No Barriers festivals, a gathering of researchers, manufacturers, and end-users of adaptive devices.

The festivals, he says, "bring together all people involved in the resolution of disability-users, technologists, scientists, manufacturers-into a single room to discuss and to better tune the vector of where the groups should take innovation." He believes this brings vital inspiration and feedback to researchers, plus demonstrations of the newest adaptive technology to the people it can benefit.

Image of the Powered Ankle-Foot Prosthesis developed at the MIT Media Lab by Hugh Herr and researchers in the Lab's Biomechatronics Research Group. Photograph by Webb Chappell.

This principle of inclusion has great meaning for Herr. When a climber, his most extraordinary post-injury climbs, including an epic 5.13+ called City Park, were dismissed more than once by peers who contended that his adaptive equipment gave him unfair advantages and should thus exclude him from certain kinds of recognition as an athlete.

Partially to address this exclusionary injustice, Herr worked with colleagues to measure the metabolic load and biomechanics of sprinter Oscar Pistorius after the Paralympian was banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from competing against able-bodied athletes at the highest level. Herr and his team found that Pistorius' biomechanics were so different from intact-legged sprinters of similar speeds that they simply couldn't be compared, and that his metabolic loads were similar enough to dismiss any conclusions that his prostheses gave him an unfair advantage.

"Everyone was so concerned about fairness, but only in a one-directional sense," Herr recalls. "They were all afraid the person with intact limbs was not being treated fairly. They don't care about Oscar, whether he may have a disadvantage that would be unfair."

Herr also contends that if the Paralympic/Olympic split continues, the balance of public interest between the two venues will eventually reverse.

He says, "If the Paralympic committees do not ban advancements in technology, 100 years from now the jumping heights and running times and whatnot for the Paralympics will all be superior to that of the Olympics. It will make the Paralympics the preferred spectator sport-it will just be more exciting."

A Vast Ocean of Effort

Questions of human rights, human potential, and the progress of technology keep Herr deeply engaged in his work. He once described his goals as to "find an end of pain and see a day when people were not handicapped because technology has freed them." When asked how far he had come on his goals, Herr replied, "A vast ocean of effort is required, but if I have and I continue to make a contribution-albeit even a small contribution-then my life has been worthwhile."

To that end, he continues to apply his seemingly endless capacity for work. He says, "I think that the most beautiful existence between work and non-work is when the very word 'work' no longer has meaning. One hopes that as we progress, as humanity progresses, that we move away from being worker bees, factory workers, to just being humans that express their passions and creativity."

Morgan Stanfield can be reached at