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Bionic ear prototype

At a glance

  • Major Australian contribution to the treatment of deafness
  • Inventions at the leading edge of medical science
  • Emeritus Professor Graeme Clark, AC
Two men and one woman leaning in to look at a small bone being held by Graeme Clark.
Professor Graeme Clark (third from left) explains the workings of his bionic ear to National Museum Collections and Content general manager Mat Trinca, director Craddock Morton and curator Rowena MacDonald. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Hearing for the deaf

The prototype for the bionic ear, hailed as the first major advancement in the treatment of deafness since the introduction of sign language, has been donated to the National Museum of Australia.

The bionic ear pioneered by Professor Clark was the first cochlear implant to reliably give speech understanding to severely and profoundly deaf people, along with spoken language to children born deaf.

The prototype is one of 15 pieces of medical equipment and objects in the Graeme Clark/University of Melbourne/Cochlear Limited collection.

Professor Clark was appointed Foundation Professor of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne in 1970. He led the team that developed the prototype bionic ear, which was implanted into the first patient, Rod Saunders, in 1978.

This success led to commercial interest in the technology and, with the support of a federal government grant, in 1982 the Nucleus 22-channel was commercially produced by the Australian firm Cochlear Limited.

Small bionic ear implant, with coiled cables inside, pictured with a box marked 'Speech Processor PSP-2' and a small receiver unit attached to coiled cables and a velco headstrap.
The original prototype multi-channel cochlear implant, or bionic ear, front left. Signals from inside the ear were transmitted to the receiver, attached to the cable at right, which was plugged into the portable speech processor, back left. Photo: George Serras.

International approval and application

Following an international clinical trial the device was approved for use in 1985. It was the first multiple-electrode implant to be approved by any world regulatory body.

In 2008 about 125,000 people in more than 70 countries have received a cochlear implant. The bionic ear has been hailed by many as the first major advance in the management of deafness since the introduction of sign language some 200 years ago.

The collection acquired by the National Museum in 2009 includes key elements that figured in the development of the bionic ear. Among these are the prototype multi-channel cochlear implant received by Rod Saunders in 1978 and subsequently removed when it was replaced by an updated model. Various other pieces of equipment and tools make up the collection.

Professor Clark's story features in the National Museum's Eternity gallery.