Did you know the bionic ear – or cochlear implant – was developed in Australia?
Professor Graeme Clark is credited with being the inventor of the bionic ear. Professor Clark’s father was deaf, so he grew up seeing the hardship of living in silence – including the frustration, anguish and resulting isolation. He also witnessed his father’s desire for a greater connection to others, and was determined to make it possible.
In the mid-1960s, while working as an ear surgeon in Melbourne, Australia, Professor Clark came upon a scientific paper by Blair Simmons in the US. It described how a profoundly deaf person received hearing sensations through electrical stimulation, but no speech understanding. The seed was planted, and in 1967 he began researching the possibility of an electronic, implantable hearing device: a cochlear implant.
In 1978, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital developed a prototype implant for the use of a totally hearing-impaired patient. Over the next few years, Melbourne University in conjunction with Cochlear Pty Ltd developed a wearable speech processor designed for use with a reliable implant. The device went on to be marketed worldwide.
The science behind the bionic ear was explained in The Lion magazine in February 1988:
The bionic ear consists of an external or wearble unit which receives speech and environmental sounds and converts them into an appropriate code for transmission through the skin by radio waves to an implantable unit. The implantable unit then sounds electrical signals along a number of fine wires inserted into the inner ear so that groups of hearing nerves can be stimulated and so convey the sensations of speech or environmental sounds.
In 1988 the cost of the total device was almost $13,000, however almost from the start of the research project the Melbourne-based Lions Hearing Research Fund was contributing significantly to the work.
In 1990 the Lions International Deafness Research Fellowship was established, consisting of a full-time research position in the Australian Bionic Ear and Hearing Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.
In June 1990, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the bionic ear for use in children. Although the FDA had passed the adult version of the ear in 1985, researchers were unsure if it would be of use to children who had never been able to hear or develop speech.
By October 1993, The Lion reported that more than 5000 hearing impaired children and adults were using the bionic ear. At that time, the youngest was 17-month old Hannah Brown.
As hearing impaired children almost always lag behind others in learning to speak and read, it’s important for them to receive hearing abilities as soon as possible to reduce this gap. The assistance of Lions Australia in the ongoing research would help ensure that hearing impaired children who weren’t yet born would never experience the disadvantages of of their lack of hearing.
In April 1995, it was announced that the so-called ‘micro-bionic ear’ had been developed and shortly afterwards, Professor Graeme Clark – then Director of the Institute – stated that without the support of Lions Australia during the critical stages of the research and development, the ear would not be the success it is today.
Now known as The Bionics Institute, research continues into hearing impairment, vision impairment, epilepsy, Parkinson’s Disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.