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.”