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Celebrating 30 years of a hearing revolution

Thirty years ago in 1982, history was made when the first cochlear hearing device was implanted and ‘switched on’.  Since then, close to 200,000 people worldwide and of all ages have benefited from life-changing cochlear implant technology.

However, it almost didn’t happen, but for the vision and tenacity of Professor Graeme Clark, cochlear implant inventor and pioneer who at the time was head of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Otolaryngology.

“I had much criticism,” explains Professor Clark, Laureate Professor Emeritus, University of Melbourne, distinguished researcher NICTA and Professor, Electrical Engineering, University of Melbourne.

“But I was determined to persist and see it through, and I’m so pleased I did. I cannot imagine any technology that has had such a profound effect on transforming so many peoples’ lives.”

The success of the world’s first multi-channel commercial cochlear implant in 1982 was due to a core team of four Melbourne health professionals – Professor Clark; University of Melbourne audiologist Professor Richard Dowell; surgeons Dr Brian Pyman and Dr Robert Webb; and one brave recipient, Graham Carrick. All five reunited in Melbourne this week at a special event to celebrate the 30th anniversary.

Professor Clark was senior surgeon for Graham Carrick’s ground breaking surgery, assisted by Dr Brian Pyman and Dr Robert Webb. The surgery allowed Mr Carrick to hear for the first time in 17 years.

The milestone surgery was the result of a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and biomedical company Nucleus (Cochlear Limited).

And so the ‘bionic ear’ hit the commercial stage. It was the first device to be clinically trialled worldwide and  was found to be safe and effective. It was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1985 – the first multiple-electrode cochlear implant to be approved by any world regulatory body.

The development of the bionic ear grew out of Professor Clark’s pioneering research at the University of Melbourne during the 1970s when he led the Department of Otarlaryngology.

In 1985 Professor Clark performed cochlear implant surgery on the first children (the first was 10 years old, the second five). Today, the youngest recipient is just a few months old. Over the past 30 years it’s been proven that people of all ages can benefit from a cochlear implant, with the oldest recipient aged almost 100.

Continuing research led by Professor Richard Dowell of the University’s Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology in collaboration with organisations such as The Royal Victorian Royal Eye and Ear Hospital has helped to refine the cochlear implant device and to improve hearing.

“After years of hard work and refining the cochlear device, such children have come to have the same social, educational and vocational opportunities as their normal-hearing peers, an outcome undreamed of in the past,” Professor Dowell said.

For Professor Clark, who was inspired to develop the cochlear implant after watching his father struggle through life with hearing loss, watching how recipients’ lives are transformed by his innovation never fails to move him.

“Every time I see someone get switched on I get such a thrill knowing what a huge difference it will make to their life. I regularly receive the most touching, heart-felt thank you letters from recipients or their parents, which is really rewarding,” he said.

“The vision for the future is very exciting. With further advances in technology we should reach a stage where most people with a significant hearing loss should be able to hear as effectively as those with good hearing.”

Ten News covers the 30th Anniversary of the cochlear implant.

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