Cochlear celebrates 30 years of hearing revolution

Original ground breaking Melbourne team reunites to celebrate.

Thirty years ago in October 1982, Melbourne man Graham Carrick made history when a remarkable invention, implanted in his cochlea, was ‘switched on’ – and 15 minutes later he could hear for the first time in 17 years. 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, tenacity and perseverance of one man.

“I had much criticism and was referred to as ‘that clown Clark’,” explains Professor Graeme Clark, cochlear implant inventor and pioneer. “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; audiologist Professor Richard Dowell from the University of Melbourne; surgeons Dr Brian Pyman and Dr Robert Webb; and one brave recipient, Graham Carrick. All five reunited in Melbourne today at a special event to celebrate the 30th anniversary.

Professor Clark was senior surgeon for Graham Carrick’s ground breaking surgery, ably assisted by Dr Brian Pyman and Dr Robert Webb. The milestone surgery was a result of the successful collaboration between the University of Melbourne, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and biomedical company Nucleus (Cochlear Limited).

A lot was riding on the success of Carrick’s switch on (when the sound processor was turned on). He was in a room with Professor Dowell, while Professor Clark and a host of others including politicians and media were next door. For 15 nerve-wracking minutes nothing happened.

“But then it hit me, I heard a ‘ding dong’ and I said to myself ‘bloody hell!” explains Carrick. “To get this sound was fascinating and mind boggling. Tears ran down my face.”

And so the ‘bionic ear’ hit the commercial stage. It was the first device for clinical trial worldwide, and the international trial established that it was safe and effective and 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.

Continuing development

The development of the bionic ear grew out of Professor Clark’s pioneering research at the University of Melbourne during the 1970s, when he was Head of the University’s Department of Otolaryngology.

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, and by 2007 it became clear that deaf children could develop speech and language at normal rates if they received a cochlear implant early in life. And 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 of Melbourne’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 improve clinical outcomes.

“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 says.

Ann Clark, chief executive officer at The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, explains that the hospital provides all of Victoria’s public cochlear implant surgery. “The Hospital established the first public-funded cochlear implant clinic in the world in 1983 and since then more than 2,000 implants have been successfully performed at the hospital,” Ms Clark says.

“As the home of the bionic ear, we have a proud history in bionics. The first successful implant was performed at the Eye and Ear, and in a recent major development, the first early prototype bionic eye was implanted at the hospital by Bionic Vision Australia researchers.”

Enlisting government support

The Hon Ian Macphee AO, former cabinet minister in the Fraser government, which was in power at the time, was instrumental in facilitating the approval and funding path of the cochlear implant technology. Macphee says he is “honoured to be associated with Graeme Clark’s remarkable work and to have observed its world-wide contribution to human health.”

“When Graeme applied for a research and development grant the Fraser government was facing domestic and international economic challenges and Treasury - responsibly - was seeking to reduce government expenditure and oppose proposals for new expenditure,” says Macphee. “I was convinced of the merit of Graeme's application and spoke to Malcolm Fraser and he was equally impressed by the proposal.

“But knowing that all ministers would be protecting their own budgets and resisting new propositions, he urged me to convince Doug Anthony and Peter Nixon. Again, both were receptive to this audacious endeavour. Consequently, Cabinet approved the funding immediately. It was not long before this was seen to be justified. And the rest is history!”

Into the future

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 says.

But Professor Clark doesn’t rest on his laurels. “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.”

Graham Carrick, now 67 years old, sums up having a cochlear implant succinctly:

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. It’s not Mother Nature; we’ll never beat Mother Nature, but we’ll be near enough to it. It’s a decision I have never regretted and I’m glad I took the leap of faith to be the world’s first commercial cochlear implant recipient.”

About The University of Melbourne

Founded in 1853, The University of Melbourne it is one of Australia’s oldest established universities. The University of Melbourne is consistently ranked among the leading universities in the world: in the prestigious 2011 Times Higher Education rankings of the world’s top 200 universities, Melbourne ranked top in Australia and 37 in the world.

About the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital

The Eye and Ear is Victoria’s leading provider of eye and ear health care, integrating clinical care, research and education to optimise innovation and produce the most advanced treatments for vision and hearing loss. The Eye and Ear cares for over 250,000 patients a year.

About Cochlear Limited – ASX: COH

Cochlear is the global leader in implantable hearing solutions. It has a dedicated global team of more than 2,200

people who deliver the gift of sound to the hearing impaired in over 100 countries. Its vision is to connect people,

young and old, to a world of sound by offering life enhancing hearing solutions.

Cochlear’s promise of “Hear now. And always” embodies the company’s commitment to providing its recipients with the best possible hearing performance today and for the rest of their lives. For 30 years Cochlear has helped more than a quarter of a million people either hear for the first time or reconnect them to their families, friends, workplaces and communities.