Mark Worthing is a science historian and senior researcher with Lutheran Education Australia in Adelaide. He set out to capture the life of Australia’s greatest innovator in his new biography Graeme Clark: The man who invented the bionic ear. Graeme’s invention, the cochlear implant, achieved something that other scientists believed impossible, and brought the gift of music, speech and sound to the profoundly deaf. Mark tells us more about the treasured scientist behind the remarkable invention.
What does it mean to be a science historian? What kind of projects do you normally work on?
An historian of science is like any other historian, but with a focus on the history of science. This normally requires some specialised knowledge of the natural sciences as well as history. My doctoral training in the history and philosophy of science was done at the University of Regensburg, Germany in the early 1990s and my area of special interest was physics. I since have written on the history of physics, the relationship between science and religion, and the history of medicine within the Golden Age of Islam. Writing the biography of a significant Australian scientist is another way of helping to compile a history of science, but in this case through the life and viewpoint of a specific scientist and one who is still living. It was certainly very different than working on the histories of those who died up to 1,000 years ago in Baghdad!
Li Cunxin writes the foreword of your book. How is he involved with the story of Graeme Clark?
Colleagues are often surprised when they learn that Li Cunxin, a famous ballet dancer, has written the foreword for a biography of an Australian scientist. What is not well known is that Li Cunxin’s oldest daughter, Sophie, was born deaf, and that she was one of the earliest child implant recipients of a bionic ear in the US. A few years later, when the family moved to Melbourne, they were keen to meet Graeme Clark and to have their daughter benefit from the experience of his team here. Li was so impressed with Graeme and what he was accomplishing that he agreed to serve on the board of the Bionic Ear Institute for several years. So Li Cunxin’s experience of Graeme and his work has been both on a personal and professional level.
Graeme is considered to be in the same league as instrumental innovators Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur. What did he do to elevate himself to the same rank as these incredible scientists?
As a young boy, Graeme was inspired by reading the biographies of Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur. He thought, if they can do it, why can’t I? They inspired him to be innovative and to take risks and to never give up. These are exactly the qualities that helped Graeme to succeed in developing a functioning bionic ear when many experts has said it was impossible.
Do you remember the first time you heard of Graeme and his invention?
I was living in Germany in the early 1990s when I read about an amazing device that was now more than a decade old and had been developed by someone in Australia, which seemed like an unlikely place for such significant and groundbreaking innovation. I remember the article focusing on the ‘can do’ attitude of Australians and listing other significant Australian scientists like the Braggs and Howard Florey. I also remember thinking that the development of a bionic ear (not simply a hearing aid) seemed like something out of science fiction. Of course, at the time I never dreamed I would not only meet but be able to write the life story of the man responsible for this incredible breakthrough.
When you visited Graeme and his wife, Margaret, at their home you said he seemed relaxed, happy and down to earth. How did this demeanour affect his career in science?
Research science is extremely competitive and there is often a fine line between success and failure. For Graeme, I think his humility and connection to family helped to ground him and give him the stability needed to weather all of the storms surrounding funding applications, opposition from colleagues and dealing with those who thought he was wasting his time. The work he was doing was so extraordinary, I think it became all the more important that he and Margaret had a somewhat down to earth family life away from the limelight and stresses of his research work.
Can you explain what a cochlear implant or bionic ear does?
I think the important thing for most people to understand is that a cochlear multi-channel implant, or bionic ear, is not a hearing aid. It is not a sophisticated device to amplify sound. It actually brings a bundle of electrodes right to the edge of the brain and stimulates nerve endings so that external sound stimuli are perceived as distinctive sounds. Developing a device that allowed those who were profoundly deaf to perceive sound with the help of hearing aids was not actually that difficult. What was difficult, and what most believed to be impossible, was to develop such a device that would actually allow a profoundly deaf person not only to recognise that a sound had occurred, but to actually recognise speech and be able to distinguish individual vowel and consonant sounds. This means that a profoundly deaf individual, for instance, with a Cochlear implant, can actually speak with someone over the telephone and with no visual cues from lip reading can understand everything being said. Before 1979 and the first successful cochlear implant by Graeme Clark’s team, most scientists in the field maintained that this was impossible. Graeme was convinced that they were wrong and that the profoundly deaf could hear. Fortunately he did not give up.
What’s the most remarkable thing about Graeme Clark?
There are actually two things about Graeme that strike most people who know him. First is his humility, and second is his persistence. While he is a very humble man, he is also the kind of person who, if he believes he is right, simply is not going to give up. Some people might think that this quality does not fit very well with humility, but in Graeme’s case, it does.
Did Graeme have a significant role in crafting the book?
Well of course, without Graeme, there would have been no book. But this was in many ways more than simply an authorised biography. Graeme gave me more than his blessing to write his story, he allowed me to visit him and call him on many occasions to clarify details and check to see that my understanding of what had occurred was accurate. He also introduced me to key people who were able to give further insight into his life and career. Yet he was always keen to remind me that I should write his story as I saw it and in the way that I felt it should be written.
Was it daunting to have him read it for the first time?
I must admit that it was. Previously I had done very little writing on recent work in science or on scientists still living. When writing about events from past centuries by the time the research is finished you feel that you are probably at that moment one of the best authorities on that subject that there is. In the case of writing a biography of a living person, you know there is always one person who will be a much more authoritative expert on the subject than you: the subject of your work. So I was actually more nervous than I had expected to be when I handed over the first draft of the biography to Graeme.
I had this fear that Graeme would read the book and say ‘nice story, whose life is it about?’ That is, that he might not recognise it as his own story. There was also the worry that in the attempt to write a readable life story some aspects would be overly simplified and not portray things as Graeme felt they should be. After all, I had learned very well from learning about Graeme’s life and work that he was almost obsessed with detail and precision. That is one of the reasons that he succeeded where so many others had failed or simply given up. In the end, he and Margaret were both very happy with how the story was told and had only minor suggestions for correction. Even though I felt I had gotten the story right I was nonetheless relieved to hear that Graeme was also happy with it.
What kind of people do you think will be interested in reading your biography of Graeme?
There are actually several different groups that I think the book will appeal to. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, all those who have benefited from a bionic ear or who has a close family member or friend who has a bionic ear will be very interested to hear the story of the man who made the device possible which transformed their life. Anyone interested in the history of science or medicine will be interested, as will those who simply enjoy reading an Australian success story. Just as Graeme was inspired and his life ultimately changed by the biographies he read as a youth of Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur, I would hope that this biography of Graeme might encourage others to believe that they too can achieve the impossible.
Graeme Clark: The man who invented the bionic ear is published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $29.99.