Best Foot Forward
Hugh Herr was a teenage mountain-climbing phenom when a blizzard took his legs. Now the MIT professor has used science to get them back, building artificial limbs so advanced, they force us to rethink what “able-bodied” means.
One day, when Hugh Herr was a small boy in rural Pennsylvania, his father, John, showed Hugh and his two brothers a jar filled with rat poison. John then placed a drop of the poison onto his tongue. Maybe he meant to entertain, or educate. To this day, the boys still don’t know. But they do remember staring, awestruck, as their father’s mouth began to burn. John Herr went to wash the poison away, and emerged from the bathroom startled but unharmed. Years later, Hugh would look back on this event not in shame or derision, but with a sort of defiant pride: “I think,” Herr says of his dad, “he knew what he was doing all along.”
The same can now be said of Hugh. He, too, has put his body at great risk in the pursuit of knowledge most of us don’t want. “I’ve always thought Hugh gets from my father the proclivity for shock value,” says his older brother, Hans. Herr’s decisions have been unorthodox, sometimes foolish, but always a challenge to the limits of scientific inquiry. And now Herr, MIT professor and double amputee, has turned those choices into a rewriting of the laws of physiology. In fact, Herr is redefining what it means to be human.
On a September morning in an auditorium at Harvard Medical School, Herr decides a projector is flawed. This is a projector he insisted on bringing from the MIT Media Lab, where he works, instead of borrowing one from the medical school. He has set the projector on the table, an hour before his “Introduction to Limb Biomechanics” class, and the image displayed on the huge blackboard is upside-down.
There is a simple solution: Flip the projector over. It is, after all, a ceiling projector, meant to hang upside-down instead of sitting on a table, as Herr has it. But Herr’s not one for easy solutions, especially if the hard way gives him a chance to better understand the functionality of something. Herr calls the A/V guy, but long before he arrives, Herr is over the machine, fiddling with it, toggling it, shifting his frame over it, sighing and grumbling and deriding the machine along. It’s never close to a tantrum. Herr is always muted, from his conservative haircut—every strand of his brown hair in place—to his narrow face and small mouth, to his pedestrian clothing: button-down shirt, khakis, polished black shoes. He not only looks like an accountant, but also sounds the part, with barely an inflection in his deep, slow cadence.
After a few minutes—presto. Herr hits a button and the image turns right-side up. He doesn’t so much as grin. He shows no reaction at all. But he does summarize this small achievement. “I don’t think I’ve ever accepted what was given to me. I blamed the technology.”
In 1710, an elderly Mennonite bishop named Hans Herr led the first group of European settlers to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They found refuge there, on the far fringes of the Philadelphia area, from the persecution and famine of Switzerland and Germany. Herr and the others built a religious community that still thrives today. Hugh Herr is a direct descendant of the bishop, and his older brother is Hans Herr XII. Both were raised in a tradition of nonviolence and a belief in the teachings of Jesus. “The pacifist tradition is something I take very seriously,” says Herr. “Mennonites believe in good works. It’s not enough to simply believe. One has to act. One has to make it better for oneself and others.” Herr and his brothers went to church every Sunday, but not always the same one. “We rotated from church to church. My parents wanted to communicate that we should not be dogmatic.”
The Mennonites value achievement, and it shines through in almost every word Herr utters. That comes in large part from his father, who insisted repeatedly that “can’t is not a word” and posted a “Never say can’t” sign on the family refrigerator in Lancaster. “Do it well and do it with passion” was another favorite axiom. “He would say that if you’re a ditch digger, that’s fantastic. Just make the ditch beautiful,” Herr says.
John Herr, now retired and in his 70s, was not just a chemist, but also a homebuilder, a farmer, and an opera singer trained at the Peabody Institute. (He once soloed at Carnegie Hall.) His near-obsessive curiosity showed up right away in Hugh. “I was a child,” he says, “that would sit for hours and hours and hours and rock back and forth and stare into space. Is that normal? I don’t think so. I was thinking about things. I had an intense ability to hold a thought.”
For most of his childhood, Hugh’s mind took him outdoors. John Herr drove his boys—Tony, Hans, and Hugh—out west to the American and Canadian Rockies, to the Yukon Territory and Alaska, in search of natural beauty and the biggest mountains. He allowed his boys to climb some of them on their own, and by age eight, Hugh had scaled a face of the 11,627-foot Mount Temple in southern Alberta with only Tony there. “Our father let us do so many things,” says Hans, now 46. They once hitchhiked alone in Banff National Park. Another time, on their way to go canoeing, Hans asked his dad if he could get out and ride on top of the canoe. Hugh loved that idea and wanted to do it, too. Moments later, Hans and Hugh were holding on to the canoe, loosely clamped to the top of the family Suburban, as their dad drove 60 miles an hour toward the nearest river.
As he got into his teens, Hugh Herr began rock climbing without a rope. His blood-soaked hands showed his lack of self-regard and stirred talk among other climbers, who worried about him. Herr did not share their concern; he scaled a particularly challenging part of the popular Shawangunk Ridge south of Albany on his first try. No adult had done that before.
Herr became well known in climbing circles, so much so that an older teen from Lancaster named Jeff Batzer was starstruck when he met him. “I was just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I met this guy,'” says Batzer. The two became friends and went climbing together often.
In January 1982, 17-year-old Herr and 20-year-old Batzer set out to scale Mount Washington in New Hampshire. A fellow mountaineer recognized Herr as he arrived at a base camp called the Harvard Cabin on the serene night before the ascent. The next morning, a Saturday, brought avalanche conditions to the mountain in every gully but one. No one else, not even Herr’s fans, was on that part of the mountain by that point.
The duo scaled first a 55-degree, 600-foot sheet of ice in one and a half hours. They then moved up another 500 feet over packed snow. It was snowing, but not badly. The winds were calm, at least for Mount Washington.
Batzer, the less-experienced climber, looked to Herr and saw no trace of concern. “Hugh seemed really with-it,” Batzer says. “We were kind of having fun, actually.”
But then, in a 10-minute span, the winds picked up, reaching 100 miles an hour, and the wind chill dropped to 110 below. Conversation slowed, then stopped. It was now midmorning; the temperature dropped even more. Visibility worsened, until Herr could see only the dim outline of his friend, roughly 25 feet away. They kept going. They didn’t have much left to climb: 5,000 feet up and just over 1,000 feet to the summit.
Soon the white all but blinded them. It was foolish to keep at it; time to turn around. They found tracks from a snowmaking machine, and thought they were near civilization. But they weren’t. Their path led them farther north, which on Mount Washington means away from any form of civilization. The pair stumbled along, faces into the wind, until they arrived at the frozen Peabody River. They decided to crawl across it to an open area. But Herr plunged through the ice, waist-deep into the frigid water, and used precious energy to get out.
Darkness came. Every stride took them deeper into the blizzard, and the snow only climbed and clung, especially to Herr, who was drenched. “It’s like a car accident,” Herr says now. “It happens really fast. And then you’re fucked.” His eyes lock on the memory.
“You’re really fucked.”