Magazine article Volta Voices

Celebrating Graeme Clark

Magazine article Volta Voices

Celebrating Graeme Clark

Article excerpt

Rod Saunders heard the familiar strains of "Waltzing Matilda, "a traditional Australian folksong, and smiled. Although a common occurrence for most people, it was remarkable for Saunders, who became profoundly deaf in his forties.

In 1978, 48-year-old Saunders became the first recipient of a multichannel cochlear implant and regained his hearing once the implant was activated. This moment represented more than a decade of research and forever changed the world for people with hearing loss.

For Professor Graeme Clark, the inventor of the device, the moment marked the realization of a lifelong dream. Clark's father was deaf and, as a young boy, Clark dreamed he would discover a medical miracle to help his father. An ear, nose and throat surgeon by profession, Clark discovered that people's brains interpret speech in multiple modes and concluded that single-channel implants would not adequately stimulate the auditory nerve to lead to speech understanding.

Clark pursued the idea of a multichannel electrode and eventually was offered a position at the University of Melbourne in 1970, where he led the first otolaryngology department in Australia. Because the electronics needed to further his multichannel stimulation concept were complex and expensive to develop, Clark spent countless hours raising money through telethons, charity concerts and service club events for $100 donations to support continued research.

In 1976, serendipity intervened. While relaxing with his family on a beach, Clark picked up a turban shell and proceeded to solve one of the research team's toughest challenges: how to pass a bundle of wires into the tightening spiral of the inner ear. Experimenting with a blade of grass, which was strong and thick on one end and flexible on the other, Clark threaded it through the shell and the concept was clear: an electrode array that was more flexible at the tip could be inserted into the spiral of the cochlea while minimizing damage to its delicate structures. …

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