Hugh Herr
Herr in 2013
Hugh Miller Herr

(1964-10-25) October 25, 1964 (age 59)
Alma materMillersville University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Harvard University
Scientific career
Mechanical engineering
InstitutionsMassachusetts Institute of Technology

Hugh Herr (born October 25, 1964) is an American rock climber, engineer, and biophysicist. When he was young, both of his legs were amputated below the knee during a blizzard in a rock climbing trip.[1] After months of surgeries and rehabilitation, Herr began climbing again, using specialized prostheses he designed for himself, becoming the first person with a major amputation to perform in a sport on par with elite-level, able-bodied persons.[2][3][dubiousdiscuss] He holds the patents to the Rheo Knee,[4] an active ankle-foot orthosis, which is the world's first powered ankle-foot prosthesis.[5]

Early life

The youngest of five siblings of a Mennonite family from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hugh Herr was a prodigy rock climber: by age 8, he had scaled the face of the 11,627-foot (3,544 m) Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies, and by 17 he was acknowledged to be one of the best climbers in the United States.[1]

In January 1982, after having ascended a difficult technical ice route in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Herr and fellow climber Jeff Batzer were caught in a blizzard and became disoriented, finally descending into the Great Gulf where they passed three nights in −20 °F (−29 °C) degree temperatures. By the time they were rescued, the climbers had severe frostbite. Both of Herr's legs had to be amputated below the knees; Batzer lost his lower left leg, the toes on his right foot, and the thumb and fingers on his right hand. During the rescue attempt, volunteer Albert Dow was killed by an avalanche.[1]

Following months of surgeries and rehabilitation, Herr was doing what doctors told him was unthinkable: climbing again. Using specialized prostheses that he designed, he created prosthetic feet with high toe stiffness that made it possible to stand on small rock edges the width of a coin, and titanium-spiked feet that assisted him in ascending steep ice walls. He used these prostheses to alter his height to avoid awkward body positions and to grab hand and foot holds previously out of reach. His height could range from five to eight feet (1.5 to 2.4 m). As a result of using the prostheses, Herr climbed at a more advanced level than he had before the accident, making him the first person with a major amputation to perform in a sport on par with elite-level, able-bodied persons.[2][3]


Hugh Herr climbs the wall at the MIT Media Lab's h2.0 symposium on May 9, 2007, watched by fellow bilateral amputee Aimee Mullins

While a postdoctoral fellow at MIT in biomedical devices, Herr began working on advanced leg prostheses and orthoses, devices that emulate the functionality of the human leg.[1] He is now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, where he directs the Biomechatronics research group and co-directs the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics.[6][7][8] At the center, he focuses on developing wearable robotic systems that serve to augment human physical capability. Most of what he designs is not for him, but for others to whose difficulties he can relate.[citation needed] The devices he designs are advancing an emerging field of engineering science that applies principles of biomechanics and neural control to guide the designs of human rehabilitation and augmentative devices.[9] The goal is to rehabilitate individuals that have undergone limb amputation or have a pathology, and also to augment human physical capability for those with normal intact physiologies.

Herr holds the patents to a computer-controlled artificial knee,[10] commercially available as the Rheo Knee[4] an active ankle-foot orthosis, and the world's first powered ankle-foot prosthesis.[5] The computer-controlled knee, which is outfitted with a microprocessor that continually senses the joint's position and the loads applied to the limb, was named one of the Top Ten Inventions in the health category by Time magazine in 2004.[11] The robotic ankle-foot prosthesis, which mimics the action of a biological leg and, for the first time, provides transtibial amputees with a natural gait, was named to the same Time top-ten list in 2007.[12]

Herr presenting prosthetic legs at TED 2014, where he first demonstrated a running gait under neural command.

Oscar Pistorious

Herr was a member of a team of seven experts in biomechanics and physiology from six universities that conducted research on the mechanics of Oscar Pistorius' running blades. The South African bilateral amputee track athlete was banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) from running in able-bodied events, as previous research had shown the blades gave him a competitive advantage.[13] A portion of these results were presented to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland in May 2008, by Herr and colleague Rodger Kram which resulted in reversing the ban. This allowed Pistorius to become the first disabled sprint runner to qualify against able-bodied athletes for an Olympic event.[14] The full findings of the team's experiments were published in the June 18, 2009 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology.[15]

Grants and awards

Rock climbs

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d Adelson, Eric (March 2009). "Best Foot Forward". Boston. Archived from the original on March 30, 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  2. ^ a b Osius, Alison (1991). Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-1794-6.
  3. ^ a b National Geographic Channel. "Ascent - The Story of Hugh Herr". YouTube. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  4. ^ a b Zamiska, Nicholas (July 6, 2004). "Bionic Knee 'Learns' How to Walk". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  5. ^ a b Singer, Emily; Graham-Rowe, Duncan (May 11, 2007). "Biomedicine The World's First Powered Ankle". MIT Technology Review. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  6. ^ Todd Balf (September 6, 2017). "The Biomechatronic Man". Outside. Retrieved October 10, 2017.
  7. ^ "How MIT Media Lab is advancing human physicality, cognition, and emotional experience through bionic augmentation". TechRepublic. Retrieved October 18, 2018.
  8. ^ "K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics". Retrieved December 10, 2021.
  9. ^ Helgessen, Sally (October 3, 2016). "Hugh Herr Wants to Build a More Perfect Human". Strategy+Business. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  10. ^ Carswell, Lindsay (February 12, 2005). "New Robotic Knee". Science Central. Archived from the original on October 29, 2010. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  11. ^ a b "Smooth Operator - The Best Inventions Of 2004". Time. September 19, 2011. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  12. ^ a b "Joint Venture - The Best Inventions Of 2007". Time. November 1, 2007. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
  13. ^ "Study Revives Olympic Prospects for Amputee Sprinter". MIT Media Lab. May 15, 2008. Archived from the original on January 29, 2018. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  14. ^ Sauser, Brittany (May 21, 2008). "Amputee Gets a Shot at the Olympics". MIT Technology Review. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  15. ^ G. Weyand, Peter; W. Bundle, Peter; P. McGowan, Craig; Grabowski, Alena; Brown, Beth; Kram, Rodger; Herr, Hugh (June 18, 2009). "The fastest runner on artificial legs: different limbs, similar function?" (PDF). Journal of Applied Physiology. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  16. ^ "Hugh Herr". The Heinz Awards. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  17. ^ "Action Maverick". STREB. Archived from the original on April 15, 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  18. ^ "Spirit Of Da Vinci Award Goes To MIT Bio-Mechantron Professor - Amputee Designing The Next Generation Of Prostheses". Medical News Today. September 12, 2008. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  19. ^ Hock, Lindsay (August 12, 2014). "R&D Magazine Announces Scientist and Innovator of the Year Award Winners". R&D Magazine. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  20. ^ "Princess of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research 2016 - Hugh Herr". The Princess of Asturias Foundation. 2016. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  21. ^ Clune, Russ (Spring 2009). "Vandals, Shawangunks". Patagonia – Field Report. Patagonia, Inc. Archived from the original on June 30, 2009. Retrieved December 24, 2009.
  22. ^ Green, Stewart (2001). Rock Climbing New England. Guilford CT: Falcon Books. p. 100. ISBN 978-1-56044-811-2.
  23. ^ Smoot, Jeff (2000). "A Walk in the Park". Archived from the original on April 8, 2001. Retrieved December 27, 2009.
  24. ^ Martin, Jason (April 14, 2005). "Only strong climbers need apply themselves to the daunting granite of Index". Seattle PI. Seattle Retrieved December 24, 2009.[permanent dead link]
  25. ^ "Augmented: Nova PBS episode featuring Hugh Herr". February 23, 2022. Retrieved February 24, 2022.