“Leader of the Bionic Age” wins Princess of Asturias research award

Hugh Herr of the MIT Media Lab is recognized by Spain’s top prizes for his high-tech prosthetics that help amputees

Hugh Herr, pictured in 2014.
Hugh Herr, pictured in 2014.Brian Snyder (REUTERS)

Hugh Herr, a bionics researcher at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been awarded the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research for his work on high-tech artificial limbs.

In 2011, TIME magazine called Herr the “Leader of the Bionic Age.”

A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Herr’s breakthrough work as a scientist and engineer at the MIT’s Media Lab originated in a personal tragedy. In 1982, at the age of 17, he went on a climbing expedition in New Hampshire and lost his way in a blizzard. He was missing for three nights, enduring temperatures of -29ºC. He was found alive, but had his legs amputated below the knees as a result of the frostbite.

Just 12 months after his accident, Herr was mountain climbing again

Traumatized by the death of one of the volunteers who had gone out looking for him, and disappointed at the prosthetic limbs he was fitted with at the hospital, Herr decided to spend his life designing more advanced limbs that would allow him to climb again and help other amputees like himself.

Just 12 months after his accident, Herr was mountain climbing again, and recently told Popular Science magazine that he was doing it better than with his real legs. “I quickly abandoned the notion that a prosthesis has to have a human shape and began optimizing function,” he said in that interview.

Since then, his own body has been his primary testing ground. Not content with helping amputees, Herr, now 51, also wants to improve other people’s bodies. His new avenues of investigation have led to an entire class of “intelligent” robotic prosthetics that accelerate the fusion of the human body and machines, increasing the former’s strength and resistance.

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His methods encompass a variety of scientific and technological fields, from biomechanics to biomedicine.

Herr has also designed his own bionic legs, the world’s first bionic foot-and-calf system called the BiOM. He is the founder of BiONx Medical Technologies (formerly iWalk) and the author and co-author of over 80 peer-reviewed manuscripts and patents.

The Princess of Asturias Awards are Spain’s answer to the Nobel Prize. The foundation grants €50,000 to winners in eight categories, who accept their prize from the king of Spain every month of October at a ceremony in Oviedo.

Formerly known as the Prince of Asturias Awards, the 36-year-old prizes’ name was changed after Crown Prince Felipe became the king of Spain in June 2014, passing the heir title on to his eldest daughter Leonor.

Past winners in the arts and literature categories include Francis Ford Coppola, Frank O. Gehry, Bob Dylan, Philip Roth, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood and Paul Auster.

English version by Susana Urra.

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