Graeme Clark: "I didn’t even think it would necessarily work"

Photo: Cochlear

Australian Professor of Medicine Graeme Clark is known as a pioneer for the revolutionary technology of the Cochlea-Implant (CI). In recognition for his life’s work Graeme Clark received the “Hear for Life Award". This award from the Innocentia publishing house honors outstanding researchers and entrepreneurs in the field of hearing rehabilitation. Already last year Graeme Clark was distinguished -along with with Ingeborg Hochmair (MED-EL) and Blake S. Wilson (Duke University)- with the “Laser-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award."

Audio Infos : Many children want to change the world into a better place. When you were a young boy you had the wish to make your deaf father hear. You decided to find a technological solution for him. After 30 years 320,000 hearing impaired people all over the world live with cochlear-implants. What do you mean, what is the secret to turning a fantastic childhood wish into reality?

Prof. Graeme Clark : Well, firstly I must say my childhood wish was more modest and I first wanted to be an ear-doctor. I didn’t at that stage realise how difficult or impossible it seemed to give people hearing speech with electrical or any other means. It was only when I started as a doctor, I realised how important it was to try to do what most people said was impossible. And a majority of people said politely that I was overambitious and foolish. – Clown Clark… - And others had more really extreme expressions.

Audio Infos : The first patient you supplied with a multi-channel cochlear-implant was Rod Saunders. The first thing he could hear was ”God save the Queen“? Why did you use the British national anthem?

Prof. Graeme Clark : Well, the first thing that we wanted to do was to see if he could get a very modest improvement and get music or tones – and “God save the Queen”, then was the Australian national anthem. In those days you were meant to stand to attention when the national anthem was played. And Rod did that and pulled the leads out of his equipment. So we didn’t have any recording, and so then I asked if they would play our folk national anthem “Waltzing Matilda” by Banjo Paterson. … I want to sing it for you. It’s a very national popular song.

Audio Infos : I imagine, you the doctor and the patient were both looking for a solution that existed nowhere around the world. He experienced hearing things in ways other than what you expected (high and low frequencies and differences in the vowels). – How was this relationship between you and Mr. Saunders over the years? How was it for you to try out this invention on a person for the first time?

Prof. Graeme Clark : I think that I firstly had to be a responsible doctor and establish trust in my patient. And so I agreed with him that I would be quite open and I discussed everything with him. He had every opportunity to withdraw from the study, if he wanted to do so. And so it produced a bond of trust and friendship. And I must say that lasted the whole of his remaining implanted life.

Audio Infos : In Germany 30 years ago the first patients were supplied with a cochlear-implant. To what extent did you follow up with the development of the practice of supplying cochlear-implants here in Germany? Do you still keep in touch with German cochlear-implant-specialists?

Prof. Graeme Clark : These are a lot of questions… - I will try and answer them. Firstly, when we developed the prototype at the University of Melbourne it was developed with a grant ($6,000,000) from the Australian government. I was on the committee that helped select the company which was actually a pacemaking firm “Telectronics” which formed a small subsidiary that they finally called Cochlear Limited. So, that is how it started. And I worked with Cochlear, because I felt it was important to assist at the start as Cochlear had no contact or experience with hearing surgeons. I had a number of colleagues, as I too was an ear surgeon. So I was able to guide Cochlear and introduce them to surgeons. My early surgical training was with the British tradition which was in England and Scotland. But my best contacts in Europe were none other than Professor Ernst Lehnhardt. Ernst Lehnhardt - I remember – he was looking for this development. He was an outstanding, exceptional ear doctor, because he understood audiology as well as ear surgery. And Ernst was looking for an opportunity to work in this area. He and Rolf Battmer took a 25-hour journey to Melbourne to see for themselves, what these people were up to in Melbourne. And I can always remember going to meet them from the plane, both looking awfully tired, unshaven and the worst for wear. But Ernst was very impressed with what we had to show him. He saw patients and he went back to Germany convinced that this was the implant development that he would be associated with. And after that, well, he became a good friend.

Audio Infos : In what way can you tell us about the role that Germany has played in establishing cochlear implants? Special role of Germany?

Prof. Graeme Clark : Absolutely. When we started with Cochlear – they were a small firm, and the first challenge was to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. That was the basic world standard. And we needed patients to be included. And Ernst led one of the few participating clinics. There were four in America, the German at Hannover, Sydney and ourselves in Melbourne. And then Ernst went on to build up probably the largest clinic in the world. And also he went on to help train surgeons in South America. So he played a very significant role in its early development.