Boy wonder. Best — and youngest — rock climber in the East. Bold, calculating, obsessed. There was a time in the early 1980s when such monikers and appellations revolved around Hugh Herr, then a quiet and intense 17-year-old who had found his bliss and his talent making steep ascents on rocks.

Herr, the youngest of five siblings in a Mennonite family from Lancaster, Pa., was an ace athlete, a daring climber with prodigious upper body strength. One winter day in 1982, however, Herr met a formidable opponent in the form of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi and one that has claimed the lives of hundreds of alpinists over the years. Herr and a climbing buddy became lost on the New Hampshire mountain while attempting to summit the peak. Saved by a rescue team, the two ice climbers suffered severe frostbite — a vascular surgeon said Herr’s was the worst case he’d seen in 20 years — and Herr had to have both his legs amputated below the knee.

The saga that followed the amputation includes seven surgeries, protracted and excruciating pain, an addiction to morphine, and an abiding guilt over the death of one member of the rescue squad. It also includes an eventual return to rock climbing aided by prostheses — (“I climb at a more advanced level after the accident, because I designed specialized feet to ascend rock and ice walls,” he says) — a biography of his life — Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr by Alison Osius — and hundreds of articles about his post-amputation climbing talents. In addition, he has found a new life commitment.

Focus on Bionics

“I spend my time thinking about how to use technology to rehabilitate and amplify human movement,” says Herr. His work takes place at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), where he is a faculty member, the MIT Leg Laboratory, which is dedicated to studying locomotion by legs and where Herr is principal investigator, and the Herr Institute for Human Rehabilitation Leg Laboratory, which he founded and directs. In all these locales, Herr takes the single-mindedness he used to focus on the slopes and directs it towards bionics, the science of applying technology to improve the abilities of the human body.

Specifically Herr and colleague Gill Pratt of Olin College in Massachusetts, are busy building a new and improved artificial knee. Four years in the making, their knee prosthesis incorporates computer sensors that measure knee resistance as a person moves. With conventional computer-controlled knee prostheses, a professional may program the prosthesis with specific knee resistance information on a onetime or occasional basis. But “once the patient leaves the office, he may change shoes, or terrain, or gain weight,” he explains. Herr’s highly adaptive device allows the user to “modify the knee himself. He doesn’t have to continue going back to a professional to integrate the professional know-how.” Now working with Össur Inc, an Icelandic company, to get the device into the marketplace, Herr says their knee technology will likely be more economical than other state-of-the-art computerized knees, which currently cost about $20,000. Herr and his colleagues also are working on creating an ankle brace for treating drop-foot, a typical condition of stroke patients in which the anterior leg muscles no longer function properly, causing the foot to slap on the ground uncontrollably. The device uses external motors to replace the muscle function.

Seven Patents

With seven patents listed on his resume — in person, he’s offhand about how many he actually has, saying he “doesn’t care” — Herr has a number of other assisted technology achievements to his credit. He has designed a running shoe, not specifically for the disabled, which uses carbon composite springs in the mid-sole; the springs reduce the metabolic requirements for running by offering greater shock absorption and a higher degree of shoe stability compared to other air or gel mid-soled systems. Herr is currently negotiating with several manufacturers to bring the shoe to market. He also designs interface systems to attach prostheses to the body.

He gained his first patent, in 1990, for a socket with an inflatable surface that surrounds the residual limb with fluid. Wearers can make adjustments in the prosthesis to fit daily changes in the limb, which often is swollen in the morning and shrinks as the day progresses. Herr’s personal experience with prostheses offers an invaluable advantage to his field research. “I understand the problems and I understand the needs of the patient at a deeper level, because I live with the technology every day,” he says.

He also brings to the enterprise highly developed analytical skills that are needed to pinpoint problem areas when something hurts, since the pain an amputee feels may emanate from one area but be experienced as coming from another.

Herr’s source of inspiration for projects is entirely “knee-driven,” he says, adding that it’s finding the financial resources to pursue projects — not coming up with ideas — that creates a limitation. “To state the obvious, most people want to make a difference,” he says, adding, “There are a gazillion problems to solve. It’s finding a solution that’s difficult, but that’s what fires me.”