March 20th, 2012
12:41 PM ET

Coming up on 'The Next List': Hugh Herr, Bionic man

Hugh Herr, who is the director of the Biomechatronics group at MIT’s Media Lab and the founder of iWalk. He invents bionic limbs that move like flesh and bone. Herr lost both of his limbs in a tragic mountain climbing accident. Watch Hugh Herr’s entire story on Sunday March 25 at 2 pm E.T. on CNN.

Hugh Herr believes there's no such thing as disability - only bad technology.

The double-amputee says the bionic limbs he’s inventing will transform the way amputees experience their lives, will revolutionize sports and predicts the advancement of limb technology will change the psychology of disability.

He uses words like “sexy”, “cool” and “powerful” to describe his disability.

“I’m often asked if I was granted a wish from a magic fairy, would I wish my biological legs back? And I always say absolutely not,” says Herr. “My bionic limbs are part of my creation. They’re - they’ve become part of my identity.”

Hugh Herr is the director of the Biomechatronics Group and the MIT Media Lab and the inventor of the first bionic prosthetic leg that feels and acts like a regular leg, and relies on robots to take actual steps. He is the leading expert in the field and he is the subject of most of his research and development because and he is a double amputee.

Herr grew up in a Mennonite family that would take beautiful vacations exploring the outdoors. By age 6, he was a prodigy at rock climbing. It became his passion. But when he was 17 years old, he lost both of his legs in a tragic rock climbing accident. He was caught in a blizzard with a friend, became disoriented and descended into a ravine where he spent days trying to stay warm and stay alive. On day 4 and they were finally found and brought to safety.

During the the search for Hugh Herr and his friend, Albert Dow, was killed in an avalanche. And after extensive medical treatments to save his limbs, doctors finally amputated Herr’s legs below the knee because of severe frostbite and hypothermia. It was life-changing on many levels.

“I thought, well, I have two choices. I can give up and wallow in depression and self pity, or I can really make a best effort, do everything I can to make my life into a positive force, “says Herr. “I thought given Albert Dow’s ultimate sacrifice, I thought of course the right thing to do is to make my life worthwhile, to give it a vector that was positive instead of negative. So that was kind of the underlying emotional theme that really got me out the hospital bed and up onto the mountain face again.”

It also sent Hugh Herr on a journey to start designing better prosthetic limbs. He went to college, received advance degrees from MIT and Harvard in mechanical engineering and biophysics. Herr is changing the way people are experiencing their own disability and he maintains that his prosthetics are actually better and more efficient that human limbs. His outlook on his life, aging, mortality, and aesthetic beauty are all impacted by his experience with prostheses.

Hugh Herr has also founded a company, iWalk, that fits lower limb amputees with bionic ankles called the BIOM. “What we plan to do and will do is systematically build body parts from the ground up literally. So we’re starting with ankles,” says Herr. “Then the next act of iwalk is knees. And after that will be hips. And we’ll just rebuild the human from the ground up.” Herr is still an avid rock climber and owns dozens of different pairs of legs to suit his lifestyle: legs for running, for walking, for climbing, for swimming.

His message to amputees is this: Life doesn’t end when you lose a limb.

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soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Efrain Farrauto

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    June 8, 2013 at 10:48 am | Reply
  2. Cindy Friday

    Watched Hugh Herr and have seen so many great stories in past episodes. I teach elementary age and would like to know where I should look on the website for snippets I could use in class that could generate discussion, writing ideas, excitement for science/tech especially. It would be wonderful if you had an educators link. I could share something 3 to 5 minutes, at a language level accessible to younger students. Maybe you have such a thing already?

    August 26, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  3. Jack

    Good evening. Everyone is graciously invited to visit... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 15, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  4. Rikki

    I have a right and left hemipelvectomy in 2010. 56 yrs old and T3 paraplegic since age 23. I was reviewing the information on biomechatronics and I was curious if I could participate in any of your programs if any are available in Southern California.

    May 29, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  5. Tiffany

    I need information on robots with emotions. If robots are bing created to have emotions? If its possible? Or information along the lines of psychology or relantionship between a human or robot.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • Mike K.

      Do your own homework.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
      • Stephen J. Bush

        Kind of an arrogant reply Mike K! You sound like a typical Ivy league Professor too self involved with sabbaticals and research to guide someone in need. Couldn't you have referred the questioner to your teaching assistant?

        November 17, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  6. M. Tisch

    Does anyone know of any research being done along these lines re arthrogryposis involving the upper extremities?

    March 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  7. Stephen J. Bush

    I have MD of the feet/ankles (poly-neuropathy/Charcot-Marie-Tooth). Any braces being made to allow non-amputees like me run again?

    March 25, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
    • hamletxi

      Hi Stephen i am 33 and i have DUCHENNE muscular dystrophy. Your question "Any braces being made to allow non-amputees like me", is exactly what i feel. I am sure like me your happy that amputees are getting these new limbs but why aren't devices being made for people with muscle weakness. You used the word brace but scientist's and robotics experts refer to your idea as an exoskeleton. Im working on a project and to build awareness to create exactly what your looking for. I've made a Facebook group called Robotic exoskeleton For Duchenne(http://www.facebook.com/groups/181395521934833/). The technology i highlight there is applicable to anyone with muscle weakness. Please check it out so we can have this technology for Muscular Dystrophy

      March 25, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
      • Stephen J. Bush

        I am researching a product from "Dynamic Bracing Solutions Co"
        1 in 2500 have CMT form of MD. Good luck to you, and i'll try your address!

        November 17, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  8. Theresa Chason

    The majority of bilateral below the knee amputees don't walk because the sockets are too painful and the average prosthesis is not bionic and hard to balance with. most insurance will not pay for these advanced bionic legs.New comfortable socket design would do more to help Amputees to walk. Comfortable sockets would be more affordable and accessible for the majority of amputees.

    Tell the stories of the rest of us who struggle daily with legs that are painful and limit activity because if rigid sockets.
    The general public hear about advancements in prosthetics and assume all amputees have some kind of advantage and don't realize it takes the average bilateral amputee 3 to 4 times the effort to walk.
    The general public also have the misconception that athletes like Oscar Pistorius have a mechanical advantage, Oscar is able to run fast only because of training and courage,

    CNN investigative reporters could do more good for amputees by telling the stories of the real struggles they have to walk.

    March 24, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  9. edelaney

    This guy gives so much hope to people like me- my brother recently lost his leg from a rare and deadly bacterial infection, at only 42 years old. I cannot wait until iWalk invents a viable whole leg for him...

    March 21, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  10. Mark Rohssler

    You need to be more carefull of facts in your stories. Albert Dow was killed in the search for Hugh Herr but was not the one that found him. He was killed the day before the men were found. He was killed in an avalanche while searching

    March 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Reply

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