Hugh Herr, Inventor of the First Bionic Foot and Calf System

By Steve Brachmann
December 2, 2014

Dr. Hugh Herr

In our recent coverage of the Evolution of Prosthetic Devices, we were intrigued to find so many developments in the field that came from those who had suffered amputations over the centuries. Dr. Hugh Herr is no exception. On Tuesday, December 9, 2014, Dr. Herr will receive the 2014 Inventor of the Year award during a ceremony hosted by the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation (IPOEF). Like many before him, Herr follows in the tradition of incredible engineering feats in prosthetic devices designed by amputees. But Herr didn’t just stop with a prosthetic device, but instead is blazing a wholly original path that may improve the motor ability of the entire human race, not just those who have lost one or more of their limbs.

“Basic levels of physiological function should be a part of our human rights. Every person should have the right to live life without disability if they so choose.” These words came during a TED Talk given in March of this year by Dr. Hugh Herr, inventor of the BiOM® T2 System, the world’s first bionic foot and calf system and the 2014 Inventor of the Year being recognized by IPOEF. Dr. Herr’s story is one of incredible innovation in the face of a terrible struggle to regain the mobility he lost decades ago during a fateful rock climbing expedition.

 

Hugh Herr – Rock Climbing Aficionado

From an early age, Hugh Herr pursued his interests with a zeal that attracted attention from many. His rock climbing activities had already gained him notoriety by the age of 17 after completing some incredible feats, such as conquering a particularly challenging section of the Shawangunk Ridge south of Albany, NY, on his first attempt.

In January of 1982, Herr and a friend of his took on the challenge of reaching the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Although weather conditions were decent when they began, they were slammed with a blizzard reaching winds of 110 MPH just a few thousand feet from the top of the mountain. After getting lost trying to return to the mountain’s base, the pair tried to cross the frozen Peabody River when Herr plunged into the water. Stranded for four days before being rescued, severe frostbite had set in and both of his legs would be amputated below the knees in March of that year.

As tragic as that situation was, it barely slowed Herr’s drive to return to rock climbing. Within a year of the surgery, he began scaling rock faces again after having fashioned his own prosthetic legs. These were designed to be an improvement on the prosthetic devices that were first offered to Herr, which he couldn’t use without crutches or else the plaster supports would crack. The poor technology and discomfort caused by these prostheses inspired him to make devices that were easier to wear. In his own designs, Herr focused on function, creating prosthetic devices that were optimal for climbing ice walls or sitting into tiny cracks in the rock where human feet couldn’t fit. By many accounts, Herr was even better at scaling rock walls after recovering from his amputation.

 

Entering the World of Bionics Development

From U.S. Patent 4923475, entitled “Inflatable Limb Prosthesis with Preformed Inner Surface.”

Rock climbing remains a passionate endeavor throughout Herr’s life although a new academic pursuit was now in focus. By age 25, Herr graduated from Millersville University in Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in physics. According to MIT Technology Review, Herr began patenting his prosthetic devices while at Millersville. The earliest patent which we found assigned to Herr, likely filed during his time in college, was U.S. Patent 4923475, entitled Inflatable Limb Prosthesis with Preformed Inner Surface. Issued to Herr and co-inventor Barry Gosthnian of Mechanicsburg, PA, which claims a prosthesis comprised of a socket with a stump-receiving opening, a cup-shaped interior and a plurality of bladders molded to define a stump-engaging surface. The prosthetic device protected by this patent is designed to reduce the occurrence of skin abrasions in wearers while also improving stability.

Herr’s success in rock climbing through the use of specialized prosthetic devices helped him to a realization that would stoke the fires of his pursuit of better bionic prostheses. Herr believed that he could develop prosthetic devices for missing limbs which could accomplish greater feats than human limbs. He enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. His thesis project, an elastic suit which increased the ease of making a vertical climb, would presage his later work in developing bionics that could improve the functions of those who’ve retained the function of all their appendages.

From U.S. Patent No. 5458143, entitled “Crutch with Elbow and Shank Springs.”

The time spent by Herr at MIT would prove to be a very fruitful period in terms of his development of prosthetic devices. While earning his master’s, and then taking on post-doctoral work at the school after attaining his Ph.D in biophysics from Harvard University, Herr developed many varieties of knee joints, ankle joints and leg braces. We noticed a couple of patents issued to Herr during this period. U.S. Patent No. 5701686, titled Shoe and Foot Prosthesis with Bending Beam Spring Structures, claims a sole system containing a heel spring with upper and lower bending beams which are rigidly attached within a coupled region. Assigned to Herr and co-inventor Rustem Igor Gamow of Boulder, CO, in December 1997, is intended to achieve the structural support for a prosthetic leg that would be provided by a natural foot. Although not necessarily a prosthetics innovation, we also found U.S. Patent No. 5458143, entitled Crutch with Elbow and Shank Springs. Assigned solely to Herr in October 1995, it claims a crutch with an upper arm engaging portion, a hand engaging portion, a ground engaging portion and an elbow spring which can be compressed to store energy. This invention is also intended to result in a crutch apparatus which better absorbs the impact of the crutch on surfaces and releases that energy to propel the user forwards.


 

The BiOM® T2 System Returning Movement to Former Soldiers, Bombing Victims

By the year 2004, Herr had earned a position as a professor at MIT and was beginning work towards the development of bionic systems for prosthetic devices with the Biomechatronics research group at MIT. In 2007, Herr would found his own company for commercializing bionic prosthetic devices, iWalk, which would soon be renamed BiOM. It is with this company that Dr. Herr developed the foot and calf bionics system for which he will soon be recognized.

Herr always had a focus on comfort and improved functionality in his prostheses designs, but it is through his work at BiOM that he’s been able to achieve his greatest developments in bionics. He began to target areas of prosthetic device development where he felt that development had stagnated for decades, especially for replacing ankle function. By 2009, his company was testing a PowerFoot BiOM device, the world’s first for restoring muscle and tendon function in the lower legs. Weighing about five pounds, the ankle and foot prosthesis was fitted to a limb and returned about 200 percent of the body’s downward energy to the wearer, helping to propel a wearer forward.

As we noted in our Evolution of Prosthetic Devices article, wars have been a major cause of research into the field of building better prosthetic devices. In recent years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left many soldiers with missing limbs who are forced to confront this drastic change in their livelihood. As of June of this year, about 1,000 people have been outfitted with BiOM systems, about half of which received their injuries as a result of service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Military veterans are not the only people that Hugh’s invention has been able to impact due to some tragic events in our nation’s recent history. The bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, just across the Charles River from Herr’s MIT facilities, resulted in a number of victims with injuries that required amputations. After meeting Adrienne Haslet-Davis, a professional dancer who had a lower leg amputation as a result of the Boston attack, Herr personally took on the challenge of designing the ankle that would allow her to dance again, much as he had focused on creating prosthetic devices so he could return to rock climbing months after losing his own legs.

In Herr’s March 2014 TED Talk, he introduced Haslet-Davis to the crowd at the end of his presentation and to the surprise of many, she was able to glide through a rumba routine with her dance partner. After calling two other members of the BiOM research team, the group of five people, two of which were outfitted with leg prostheses, took a confident bow together. An online campaign known as No Barriers Boston was able to raise more than $30,000 to fund the purchase of bionic prostheses for the other 13 victims of the attack who had lost limbs.

Also in that TED presentation, Dr. Herr announced that he would present the device to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to develop medical coding for the BiOM, greatly increasing the number of people who could potentially benefit from this technology. In December of the previous year, BiOM had announced that the T2 System had been granted a Medicare code for reimbursement, although a fee schedule had yet to be developed for a device which can reach costs of $150,000.

It’s not just amputees that Dr. Herr sees benefitting from his innovations. Exoskeletal equipment using BiOM systems which were shown in videos during the TED conference being used by participants who had all of their limbs. The power systems implemented by the BiOM could be used to enhance normal human functioning while protecting the joints from stress by supplying more propulsion power and other bionics-assisted services. As Herr recounted, those who had worn the exoskeletal devices took them off and felt as though their legs were much heavier than they had been before wearing the devices, proof of the system’s ability to reduce some of the taxing stress of mobility on human appendages while being worn.

“A human being can never be broken. Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate.” These were just some of the words spoken by Herr on the subject of returning movement to amputees through bionics. Although the 2014 Inventor of the Year has been working towards this goal for decades, the past few years have shown not only that bionics can be effective but that they are life-changing to the patients who have suddenly lost mobility.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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  1. Next December 3, 2014 10:20 pm

    Awesome article. Very inspirational!