2004 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2004

Graeme Clark

Graeme Clark believes all children should have the opportunity to hear their own parents’ voices.

That idea has driven him to provide hearing to more than 55,000 deaf people in more than 120 countries through his invention of a multi-channel cochlear ear implant. What is possible now is the culmination of more than 35 years of effort that began when he turned to research from a comfortable life in private medical practice by undertaking a PhD.

Along the way he has overcome fierce medical criticism from colleagues and a series of technical, financial and ethical hurdles. And he isn’t finished yet. At 69 years of age he is planning a new technological assault on deafness, and is developing radical plans to apply the concepts behind the bionic ear to repair spinal cords and other neural injuries.

Professor Graeme Clark AC receives the 2004 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for the discoveries which led to the first routinely used, successful and safe electro-neural interface with the central nervous system. His bionic ear enables deaf people to participate in a world of sound.

Graeme’s development is no single invention but rather the result of dedicated vision and focused effort over the whole of his research career.

As a child Graeme became known as “the Bunsen burner kid” due to his interest in science and his fascination for the life and works of Pasteur and Curie. He also helped his deaf father in the family pharmacy – and attempted to head off trouble when his father couldn’t hear a customer’s request for “embarrassing products”.

These early experiences led him to a medical degree at the University of Sydney and into practice as an ear, nose and throat specialist in Melbourne. News of an American cochlear implant triggered his move into research, first as a PhD student at Sydney University, then as the founding Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne. Working with students, colleagues and engineers, he started to realise the dream of a bionic ear.

Because there are more than 10,000 nerves in the cochlea, it became a major challenge. Graeme realised that multiple channels were needed – an array of wires interfacing with separate groups of nerve cells – But he couldn’t work out how to place the wires inside the shell-like, helical, cochlear duct.

He solved this problem at the beach. Playing with sea shells and dune grasses, he realised that a blade of grass of the right grade of stiffness would curl around the shell. In 1978, Graeme implanted the first bionic ear in Rod Saunders. The operation showed for the first time that a deaf person could hear running speech.

Graeme and his scientific and commercial partners overcame many challenges along the way in speech processing, in preventing infection leading to meningitis, in obtaining US government approval for the use of the bionic ear in adults and children. And they also faced near insurmountable financial hurdles. One such log jam was broken when Reg Ansett agreed to run a telethon on Channel 10 to support the development of the first implant.

Graeme was instrumental in getting Australian Government support to establish Cochlear Limited – an Australian biomedical business success story. Today, Cochlear supplies more than two thirds of the global market for bionic ears.

What’s next for Graeme Clark? He believes that biomechanics, electronics, materials science and microtechnology have advanced sufficiently to allow the next big jump – to a bionic ear capable of restoring nearly normal hearing. And he believes that the underlying technologies involved in linking electronics to nerve cells could also be used to treat many other nerve injuries. So he’s committed himself and the Bionic Ear Institute to a new, enlarged mission to develop a new generation of bionic ears, and other neural prostheses for spinal cord and nerve repair.

Autobiographical Details

* 1935 Born in Camden, NSW

* 1957-1960 Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, University of Sydney, (Hons) and first place in final year exam

* 1961-1962 Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh

* 1962-1966 Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England

* 1966-1968 Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons

* 1968 Awarded Master of Surgery, University of Sydney

* 1969 Awarded PhD, University of Sydney

* 1970-2003 Foundation Professor and Chairman in the Department of Otolaryngology, University of Melbourne

* 1970-2003 Head of the Cochlear Implant Program, University of Melbourne

* 1985-2003 Head of the Cochlear Implant Clinic, Royal Victorian Eye & Ear Hospital

* 1988-1996 Director of the Australian Research Council’s Human Communication Research Centre

* 1992-1998 Director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Cochlear Implant, Speech & Hearing Research

* 2000-2004 Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne

Honorary Degrees

* 2003 Honorary Doctorate of Engineering, Chung Yuan Christian University, Taiwan

* 2002 Honorary Doctorate of Science, University of Wollongong

* 1989 Honorary Doctorate of Medicine, University of Sydney

* 1988 Honorary Doctorate of Medicine, Medizinische Hochschule, Hannover

Career Highlights

* 2004 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, London

* 2004 Awarded Companion of the Order of Australia for services to medicine

* 2003 Honorary Fellow, The Royal College of Surgeons of England

* 2003 Honorary Fellow, The Royal Society of Medicine

* 2003 Centenary Medal for pioneering world-leading Bionic Ear providing hearing to deaf people

* 2002 Australian Entrepreneur of the Year Award

* 2001 Senior Australian of the Year

* 2000 Cavalcade of Science Honour Award, Australian Institute of Political Science

* 1999 Victoria Prize

* 1999 National Australia Day Council Australian Achiever’s Award

* 1998 Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science

* 1998 Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering

* 1997 Sir William Upjohn Medal, The University of Melbourne

* 1993 Honorary Member of The Royal Society of Medicine, Section of Otology

* 1984 Founder and Director of the Bionic Ear Institute

* 1983 Awarded Officer of the Order of Australia for services to medicine

* 1984 BHP Award for the Pursuit of Excellence (Science and Technology)