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Hugh Herr

Princess of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research 2016

Hugh Herr (USA, 25th October 1964) graduated in Physics in 1990 from the University of Millersville (Pennsylvania). He subsequently earned a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a PhD in Biophysics at Harvard University in 1998. He currently heads the Biomechatronic Group at the MIT Media Lab, where he has developed what have been described as “the most sophisticated ankle prostheses in the world”. He was assistant professor at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard Medical School.

World leader in the field of bionics and biomechanics, Hugh Herr had to have both legs amputated below the knees when 17 years old after suffering severe frostbite in his limbs during a climb in the mountains. As a result of this experience, he directed his efforts and talent to try to improve the mobility of people with disabilities. He has even designed special legs for himself that have allowed him to continue practising climbing. Herr has opened up new lines of research, resulting in a class of biohybrid, “smart” prostheses which are accelerating the merging of body and machine and amplifying endurance and strength. His methods embrace a whole range of scientific and technological disciplines, from biomechanical science and the control of biological movements to the design of biomedical devices. His achievements have had a significant impact on people with physical disabilities through adaptive knee prostheses for femoral amputees and ankle and foot orthopaedic prostheses for clubfoot and pathologies caused by cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Herr has employed cross-bridge models of skeletal muscle to design and optimize a new class of human-powered mechanisms that amplify endurance for anaerobic activities. He has also built elastic shoes that increase aerobic endurance in walking and running. He is the founder of the BionX Medical Technologies company (formerly iWalk), responsible for marketing the BiOM® Ankle. This prosthesis for the lower limbs provides energy, emulating muscle function and imitating the movement of the ankle, as well as stability on variable terrain. Holder or co-holder of more than seventy patents, Herr has given numerous lectures at international conferences and forums. He is also associate editor of the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation and sits on the editorial board of other scientific publications.

His life story has been told in the book Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr (1991) and in the film Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr, made in 2002 by National Geographic. Among other distinctions, he has received the Sports Hall of Fame Award (1989), the Young American Award (1990), Science magazine’s Next Wave: Best of 2003 distinction, Best Invention of the Year by Time magazine (2004 and 2007), the Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment (2007), the Action Maverick Award (2008), the Spirit of Da Vinci Award (2008), the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award (2014) and the Blouin Creative Leadership Award (USA, 2015). In 2011, Time magazine called him “Leader of the Bionic Age”.

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