March 2021 Sydney Morning Herald
One idea propelled with passion, can change the world. Professor Graeme Clark knows a bit about that. From childhood, he faced a confounding – and deeply personal – situation: watching his father battle with deafness and the impact it had on his ability to communicate with others. As the story goes, he was sitting on a beach in Kiama, thinking of that struggle and aware of the clock running out on research funding, when he picked up a shell and threaded a blade of grass through it. The flexibility of the grass inspired the then-ear surgeon, who went on to become the inventor of the cochlear implant.
Earlier this week, Professor Graeme spoke about his vision, his life passions, and his groundbreaking invention. The softly-spoken man, pictured on the cover of his new memoir I want to fix ears with round glasses and a warm grin, offered great insight into the path that led to the eventual cochlear technology. He faced dissenters in the process, plenty of them, who told Professor Graeme he was a “clown”, trying to create something that wasn’t possible. But he overcame that. “About 95 per cent of people were opposed to what I was doing,” he says. Despite the “hurtful comments” and constant, active criticism, Professor Graeme pushed through. “I did have some strength, for sure. But I do think one was a bit of a – shall we call it – pigheadedness and a stubbornness, too. I was really keen to – having made this sacrifice, having embarked upon this journey – see it through to the end, and be tough-minded about it all and try to learn to be a better person, and better able to cope.” And he did, discovering that multi-channel electrical stimulation of the brain – which involved inserting electrodes into the inner ear – could code speech, eventually designing the implant that would change lives. “When this happened, I went to the next-door laboratory and burst into tears of joy,” Professor Graeme says. His passion, drive and ambition had paid off. “It is absolutely essential to be curious,” he says. “I think science and knowledge is very exciting still, and there’s so much more. It’s the old problem: once you discover something, you discover how many more things there are to discover.”
Professor Graeme Clark in 1970
Hamish Fairlie, 20, and his mother Fiona. Hamish received his first cochlear implant when he was five, and a second in the other ear when he was 14
When he was five years old, Hamish Fairlie directly benefited from the force of Professor Graeme’s passion, with the implantation of his first cochlear implant by aid of The Shepherd Centre, a charity that helps children born deaf or hard of hearing develop spoken language. He has only a “fuzzy recollection” of the procedure, but a clear understanding of the impact of the technology. “His work has changed the lives of people like me and my family,” says 20-year-old Hamish. “If I met him, I would say thank you, first of all. I feel proud that I get to use the technology that I do ... I’m very grateful that I was born in a time when this is possible.”
Hamish’s mother, Fiona, shares the sentiment. “We are so grateful to Professor Clark for his life-changing invention, and not just for the technology, but for his vision, resilience and perseverance especially. Bruce and Annette Shepherd [founders of The Shepherd Centre] were so committed to helping other people with hearing loss, and their drive and passion were remarkable.”
Passion. Curiosity. Interest. Excitement. Vision. Drive. Perseverance. These are the foundations of a life-changing idea. And they are available to all of us. “We stand on the shoulders of others, so we can see ahead,” says Professor Graeme, “and we have a responsibility to let the next generation stand on our shoulders and see ahead. If we’ve been able and fortunate to do something that’s been worthwhile, then we should encourage others coming along to share in that excitement.”
Professor Graeme Clark, creator of the cochlear implant
It’s been about 40 years since Professor Graeme created the cochlear implant that has, to date, been implanted in hundreds of thousands of people in 180 countries. What began as a wall of computers that one had to plug themselves into is now a wearable device the size of a hearing aid. Could Professor Graeme ever have imagined the extent of the impact of his technology? “Never. I was driven to try to restore hearing and take one step at a time, but to see the effect it has had on communication skills for adults and children has blown my mind away,” he says. And what about his father? “I would’ve loved for him to have had it ... Now, with all the improvement that Cochlear has made, to make [the device] so much easier to use, I’m sure it would’ve been something he would’ve been very blessed [to have].”
And it started with an idea. “It’s more important to think and have imagination than it is to sit down and just focus on simple problems,” Professor Graeme says. So would it be fair to suggest he would advise we make conscious time for our imaginations? “Yes, yes indeed.” And, he adds, “if you believe in something, never give up”.