Clinical Medical Research Award
President, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I feel very honoured to be a co-recipient of the prestigious Lasker~DeBakey Award in Clinical Medical Research, especially as it recognizes research that has led to the multi-channel cochlear implant or bionic ear - the first clinically successful interface between the world and human consciousness. It is also the first advance in helping severely-to-profoundly deaf children communicate since Sign Language of the Deaf began 250 years ago.
My passion to help deaf people started as a teenager when I experienced what it was like for my deaf father as a pharmacist in country Australia he said years later of his deafness "it has been an enormous handicap, it affects your whole life, there is nothing so embarrassing as not being able to hear people properly." But in 1967 when I started my research journey there was much scepticism it had been said "direct stimulation of the auditory nerve fibres with resultant perception of speech is not feasible".
Nevertheless, I commenced an uncertain journey by leaving a senior surgical position to do research in auditory brain science. And when I discovered in 1970 that multi-channel electrical stimulation would be needed there was nowhere to go to further the research. Fortunately, the University of Melbourne appointed me to establish the first ENT and Audiology Departments in Australia, but I still had few staff and little money. I pay tribute to the young graduates who shared the vision, stood on the streets of Melbourne shaking a tin and asking for money, and turned the ENT Department into an Engineering one.
When all was ready I interviewed my first experimental patient Rod Saunders in 1978 he said: "I would like to be able to hear something again. It's a nightmare being deaf. If it helps with speech I will be very grateful." It has also been a means of learning about brain function and what underlies human consciousness. I can now say after a tumultuous ride personally, that Rod and many thousands like him can now have their life back again. This has been in no small measure due to an exciting partnership with Cochlear and their leadership in biomedical technology.
In conclusion, I would to thank the Lasker Foundation again for this honour, and I will endeavour to continue my search for excellence to help deaf people and others with neurosensory disorders such as blindness and paraplegia.