A story to make you smile on International Happiness DayMarch 19, 2021
To mark International Happiness Day (yes, it’s a real thing: the UN backs it and everything), we are sharing an extract of the latest edition of the Greater Good newsletter. Sign up to get stories that will brighten your outlook in your inbox every Friday from The Age here and The Sydney Morning Herald here.
One idea, propelled with passion, can change the world. Professor Graeme Clark knows a bit about that.
From childhood, he faced a confounding – and deeply personal – situation: watching his father battle with deafness and the impact it had on his ability to communicate with others. As the story goes, he was sitting on a beach in Kiama, thinking of that struggle and aware of the clock running out on research funding, when he picked up a shell and threaded a blade of grass through it. The flexibility of the grass inspired the then-ear surgeon, who went on to become the inventor of the cochlear implant.
Earlier this week, Professor Graeme and I spoke over the course of two phone calls, about his vision, his life passions, and his groundbreaking invention. The softly spoken man, pictured on the cover of his new memoir I want to fix ears with round glasses and a warm grin, offered me great insight into the path that led to the eventual cochlear technology. He faced dissenters in the process, plenty of them, who told Professor Graeme he was a “clown”, trying to create something that wasn’t possible. But he overcame that.
“About 95 per cent of people were opposed to what I was doing,” he says. Despite the “hurtful comments” and constant, active criticism, Professor Graeme pushed through. “I did have some strength, for sure. But I do think one was a bit of a – shall we call it – pigheadedness and a stubbornness, too. I was really keen to – having made this sacrifice, having embarked upon this journey – see it through to the end, and be tough-minded about it all and try to learn to be a better person, and better able to cope.”
And he did, discovering that multi-channel electrical stimulation of the brain – which involved inserting electrodes into the inner ear – could code speech, eventually designing the implant that would change lives.
“When this happened, I went to the next-door laboratory and burst into tears of joy,” Professor Graeme says. His passion, drive and ambition had paid off.
“It is absolutely essential to be curious,” he says. “I think science and knowledge is very exciting still, and there’s so much more. It’s the old problem: once you discover something, you discover how many more things there are to discover.”
When he was five years old, Hamish Fairlie directly benefited from the force of Professor Graeme’s passion, with the implantation of his first cochlear implant by aid of The Shepherd Centre, a charity that helps children born deaf or hearing-impaired develop spoken language. He has only a “fuzzy recollection” of the procedure, but a clear understanding of the impact of the technology.
“His work has changed the lives of people like me and my family,” says 20-year-old Hamish. “If I met him, I would say thank you, first of all. I feel proud that I get to use the technology that I do … I’m very grateful that I was born in a time when this is possible.”
Hamish’s mother, Fiona, shares the sentiment.
“We are so grateful to Professor Clark for his life-changing invention, and not just for the technology, but for his vision, resilience and perseverance especially. Bruce and Annette Shepherd [founders of The Shepherd Centre] were so committed to helping other people with hearing loss, and their drive and passion were remarkable.”
Passion. Curiosity. Interest. Excitement. Vision. Drive. Perserverance. These are the foundations of a life-changing idea. And they are available to all of us.
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