At the age of 75, Australian bionic ear pioneer Professor Graeme Clark has been awarded one of surgical science's most prestigious awards, the Lister Medal, for his leading role and contributions to surgical science with the multi-channel cochlear implant.
The official announcement was made yesterday evening (16 October 2010) by the Royal College of Surgeons of England at a 75th birthday dinner hosted at the University of Melbourne for Professor Clark.
Professor Clark's pioneering research was conducted at the University of Melbourne during the 1970s. By 1977, the main remaining problem to be overcome was how to get the implant into the required region of the inner ear. The breakthrough occurred during a day at the beach with his family, when Clark noticed the similarities between the helical structure of a seashell and that of the human cochlea. By experimenting with inserting grass blades into the seashell, he realised that the key was to use a design for wire electrodes having a stiff base, and more flexible tip.
The resulting cochlear implant became the first means of providing speech understanding to profoundly deaf children and adults. Today more than 200,000 cochlear implants have been performed in over 100 countries around the world. The company formed to commercialise the invention, Cochlear Limited, continues as an inspiring example of successful Australian innovation.
While Cochlear Limited continues to innovate, and build its patent portfolio, in relation to the commercial cochlear implant, Professor Clark is continuing his own research on improvements to cochlear implants, at the Graeme Clark Centre for Bionic Ear and NeuroSensory Research, based out of Melbourne's La Trobe University. His current interest is high fidelity hearing, with the goal of creating an implant capable of allowing the deaf to better distinguish speech in noisy environments, and to enjoy and appreciate music.
The Lister Medal is named for English surgeon Joseph Lister, whose discovery of the antiseptic properties of carbolic acid paved the way for modern sterile surgery. The Medal selection is made by the Royal Society, The Royal College of Surgeons of England, the University of Glasgow, The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Two other Australians have previously received the Lister Medal: penicillin pioneer Howard Florey and transplantation surgery expert Sir Peter Morris.