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Hugh Herr: Reinventing the Human Machine

Thirty years ago, MIT scientist Hugh Herr lost his lower legs in a climbing accident and found the purpose of his life: using technology to make disability disappear. A year after the Boston Marathon bombings, his mission took on a new meaning.

* This story first appeared in the November 2013 issue of MEN'S FITNESS.

On April 15, 2013 Hugh Herr’s work gained a sudden new importance. “I was in Spain,” he recalls, “hiking on the Camino de Santiago. I first heard reports from students of mine who were trapped in the MIT Media Lab. Bombings, carjackings, shootings—at first I didn’t think it was real. Then I felt hopeless, powerless. I was so far away."

Perhaps as much as anyone in the world, Herr knew what the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings would be going through, and even more important, how they could be helped.

When he returned to Cambridge, Herr didn’t immediately try to contact those who’d lost limbs. “It takes time,” he says, “for a victim and their family to reach out. And there were so many celebrities coming forth, I took a backseat at first.”

Soon, however, he began doing public speaking engagements about the benefits technology could bring to accident victims. Attending one event was 33-year-old Adrianne Haslet, a professional ballroom dancer from Boston who’d lost her left leg below the knee in the marathon bombing. That setback was as terrible for Haslet as Herr’s own tragedy had been 31 years before.

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“I remember her towering smile as she sat in the audience with her parents,” recalls Herr. After the talk, Haslet shyly approached the stage and introduced herself. A few days later, she visited him at MIT, where he showed her a high-tech artificial leg he’d invented. Battery and microprocessor-controlled, it’s the most advanced prosthetic device in the world. Haslet put it on.

“I started jogging around the office like a little kid,” she says. “I was yelling, ‘I can’t believe I can do this!’ But then Hugh said, ‘Let’s go out- side. I want you to walk down a hill.’ I didn’t think I could do it. But he took me by the hand, and we started walking. After the first few steps, I grabbed Hugh and hugged him.

“When I put on the prosthesis, for the first time I could feel my foot move,” Haslet adds. “It was pretty emotional. Now Hugh’s become my good friend. He’s so warmhearted and humble, it’s easy to forget that he’s an amazing inventor. What I admire most about him is that he doesn’t settle for anything. He knows that things can get better, and that everybody deserves that.

"Now I'll dance again."

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