New ears to hear

It’s two days after his 80th birthday when I meet Professor Graeme Clark in his office at the Centre for Neural Engineering at the University of Melbourne. He still works there.

Professor Clark is the inventor of the cochlear implant, a device that can give hearing to a profoundly deaf person.

From early on, Professor Clark knew he wanted to “fix ears” – to give someone the ability to hear – but it would take him many years to achieve his goal.

Carrying this underlying hope, Clark enrolled in a PhD at the University of Sydney, looking at electrical stimulation of the auditory system. He hesitated to tell people – even his supervisor – what he really wanted to achieve.

“All of the physiologists at the best university at the time didn’t believe that it would work; one of the leading Americans had said that this would not work, and others had said so.

“I suppose I just felt led that this was my calling. I prayed about it, and so I had to leave it to God as to whether it would or wouldn’t work, but I felt someone had to do it properly.”

Inventor of the cochlear ear implant, Graeme Clark: "When I hear a profoundly deaf child with an implant speak, it just blows my mind away."

Inventor of the cochlear ear implant, Graeme Clark: “When I hear a profoundly deaf child with an implant speak, it just blows my mind away.”

His faith in God has been a constant companion along this scientific journey: from a conventional church upbringing to his student days when he asked Christ into his life and had “an extraordinary experience” of the reality of God.

“I said to myself, ‘It’s no good just reading the Bible and studying it – that’s theoretical. It might make some sense, but I’ve got to live it. If it doesn’t help and if it isn’t vital in one’s life, then it’s not really true.’”

“It was like David facing Goliath, it really was.”

Clark believes that hearing is the primary sense for a Christian. “It’s about understanding language, Scripture and the meaning of words. After all, ‘I am the Word,’ said Jesus. If you understand words you really understand what it is to be human, relating to God.”

Aged 34, with PhD in hand, Clark took up a position as the first Chair of Otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne. He held the position from 1970 until 2004.

The role required him to be a professor, surgeon, teacher, politician and fundraiser. At the same time, he was trying to continue his research into electrical stimulation.

Clark was feeling a lot of pressure from the scientific community to publish his findings quickly because European and American researchers were beginning to seriously investigate electrical stimulation, and Clark needed to publish first to secure further funding for his research. He was faced with a race against the clock to get his research finished.

“It was like David facing Goliath,” says Clark. “It really was.”

Clark found comfort in verses such as Philippians 4:6-7 during stressful periods: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

After several years of work, Clark tested a prototype of the cochlear implant on a human patient, Ron Saunders. The implant worked: Ron could hear sound. It was 1978.

But the heart of Clark’s work sought to give people speech understanding, not merely sound. He says that at the time it was “relatively easy” to give a deaf person some feeling and experience of sound.

“But speech understanding requires much more specific targeting of electrical stimulation. It requires a lot of sophisticated understanding of how the brain processes speech, which wasn’t really being done by all of those in the field,” he says.

And so Clark went back to school – in both Sydney and the UK – to learn more about how the brain works and how to enable someone to hear speech.

With the success of the prototype, Clark and his team were able to continue developing better implants, and since 1983, cochlear implants have been commercially available.

“When I hear a profoundly deaf child with a cochlear implant speak, it just blows my mind away. You asked me how it makes me feel. Well, it brings tears to my eyes.”

If you’re doing it through a faith commitment to God, then I don’t think there’s a case for that sort of pride.”

But not everyone is happy. The deaf community has sometimes felt threatened by the invention and success of the cochlear implant, occasionally suggesting that its invention is destroying deaf culture.

“I have tried to understand the deaf culture ever since I did my PhD,” says Clark. “I did it at the University of Sydney opposite the deaf school, so I could see them using sign language.”

Clark refers to 18th-century French educator Abbé de l’Épée and the founding of the French Deaf School in 1760, saying, “I think that it has been important to give children an opportunity to communicate. It’s a very important thing to give them a language of their own.

“But times have changed, and now there is an opportunity for children to learn auditory verbal communication, which is enabling them to mix in the society and go to church, for example. [They can] meet with friends, have a whole range of Christian and non-Christian, believing and unbelieving friends.”

Accusations levelled at him over the years include that he, and the Cochlear Institute, forced people to have an implant. He denies those claims.

“I understand they have a community and don’t want to lose that,” says Clark. “It’s important for them to have that sense. But more and more, that community is dwindling.”

Clark does not boast. Even when I give him the chance to say how proud he is of his achievements, he deflects.

“I had my pride very well dented years ago when I started this work because I got needled and tremendously criticised, so that at that stage any sense of pride was all gone. If you’re doing it through a faith commitment to God, then I don’t think there’s a case for that sort of pride.”

He has some advice for young people just starting out: “Never give up, that’s for sure. Spend time thinking rather than just doing. It’s important to think through things and have ideas.”

A recently launched biography, Graeme Clark: The Man who Invented the Bionic Ear by Mark Worthing, is available here.