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January 26, 2004

Cochlear pioneer still up to his ears in work

From: Sydney Morning Herald, Australia - Jan 26, 2004

By David Rood

Graeme Clark knew his decision to implant an electronics panel into the ear of Rod Saunders, in the hope the road-accident victim would hear again, was an enormous gamble.

But the success of that pioneering operation in 1978, despite intense criticism from other scientists, has allowed more than 50,000 people from 120 countries to hear.

The 68-year-old founder and director of the Bionic Ear Institute has been honoured for developing the multi-channel cochlear implant -- known as the bionic ear - by being made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).

"When Rod first heard running speech, because so many people had said it wasn't possible, I just broke into tears through joy," he said.

Speaking from the Kiama holiday house where a chance experiment with a blade of grass and seashell gave him the design breakthrough for the cochlear implant, Professor Clark said the award was recognition of his research team's work in taking the hearing innovation from university research to commercial reality.

"The satisfaction has been to help deaf children and adults, and the challenges that presents," he said. "To have that work recognised against other achievements in the country is very special."

He said his success was due to the support of his family, his Christian faith - even though it was "not very fashionable for scientists to say they're Christian" - and living a balanced life combining work at the University of Melbourne and "living the alternative lifestyle" at semi-rural Eltham, 20 kilometres from Melbourne.

"I've often expressed the need for research scientists to spend more time thinking rather than doing things," Professor Clark said.

At 34 he was appointed the university's founding professor of otolaryngology - the study of the ear, nose and throat - a position he still holds. In 1999, he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Professor Clark said the story and challenges of the cochlear implant were a call for Australia to create more opportunities for young people by gambling on more risky innovations.

"We don't have the high-risk mentality that the United States has. We need to review our funding arrangements and take on more risk and higher profile things, and not just invest in major institutes," he said.

When it came to scientific achievements, Professor Clark said Australia did not yet appreciate excellence in all its forms. "We are a nation that doesn't quite value the science and humanitarian side as much as we do sport."

Copyright © 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald.