Sometimes history shows how one individual truly can make a difference and impact the lives of thousands through their sheer determination and a refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer - Canadian born audiologist Professor Graeme Clark is one such hero.
For those who suffer profound deafness this man brought hope and significant change into their lives, through the development of the Cochlear Implant now used routinely across the world (1). Inspired by the struggles of his own deaf father, he was determined to find a viable solution that would help people to hear and have that all-important connection with others. In 1967 whilst working as an ear surgeon in Melbourne, Australia, he started his work into the development of an electronic, implantable device – he did so after reading the earlier works and ideas of Blair Simmons in the USA, then building upon them with his own anatomical knowledge and skill.
The cochlear implant is an electronic neuroauditory prosthesis - in other words, it’s an implantable device that can provide electrical stimulation to the nerve that carries sound signals to the brain for interpretation (2). It’s comprised of an external receiver (microphone) to collect sounds; a speech processor which then converts those sounds into a reproducible electronic signal, and a transmitter component which then sends the electronic signal into the auditory nerve. At face value that may sound quite simple and logical, so you might wonder why it took so long to be conceived, then invented, and finally mass produced, but to appreciate that you need to understand the challenges that lay behind it.
Professor Clark spent countless years building upon the pioneering works of others, and was continuously told by his peers, and others, that his idea was no more than a pipedream. In fact, he faced ridicule at medical conferences and became something of a laughingstock, as audiologists the world over were convinced that such a device could never work. By all accounts it went against the paradigm that an ‘opened’ inner ear could no longer function (3). Despite this, and in the face of tremendous resistance from the medical community at large, he pressed on and was determined to bring his idea to fruition.
In 1978, Mr Rod Saunders received the first implant from Professor Clark and Dr Brian Pyman, performed at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Australia. This patient had lost his hearing at age 46 but was now able to hear once again. Since then, the device has been continually improved as more of the components become miniaturized with advances in manufacturing technology. As at 2018, over 300 Australian patients and between 5-6,000 others worldwide, have received the cochlear implant (4), with patients reporting that this tiny device has dramatically changed their lives for the better.
If Professor Clark had stopped at the first hurdle or listened to the nay-sayers who mocked him along the way, this would never have been a reality. Let’s be forever grateful to those men and women the world over, who also share that passion and insight to make their own contributions to medicine, and forever change the lives of others in such a positive way.