Graeme Clark – Hearing the Call

graham clarkInterview with Mark Worthing, author of Graeme Clark The man who invented the bionic ear

By Emmet O’Cuana

On Friday 14 August I stood with a large group of colleagues, former patients, and families touched by the pioneering work of Professor Graeme Clark and chanted happy birthday on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

This was the cap to a book launch for Dr Mark Worthing’s biography Graeme Clark The man who invented the bionic ear held at Melbourne’s State Library. In keeping with the obvious esteem felt for Prof Clark, Worthing has written a respectful account of a life spent in the field of medical science; one which balances the narrative of the development of the Cochlear implant with Clark’s own human story. Particular focus is given to the role played by his religious faith.

It was this approach taken by Worthing, a doctor of philosophy with a strong grounding in the history of science and theology, that helped Prof Clark agree to the project. The writer’s interest in revealing the balance between the various sides of this man’s life was encouraging. Just as he had no interest in a book that would focus exclusively on the work behind the bionic ear, “[he] didn’t want a Christian biography that would only be read by Christians.”

Worthing explains how stressing the human story of Prof Clark underpins the book.

“This wasn’t just a career for him. He invested everything in this and it went back to his childhood. He really cared about his patients. He got attached to them. If there was a set-back, I think he felt as badly as they did.

“Every time he meets someone who’s had a transplant and sees how they’re doing, he really lightens up. It’s so clear that for him it was never about making money or being famous. It was just about helping people who were deaf. That was it.”

As a testament to Prof Clark’s care to his patients, the family of Rob Saunders, the first recipient of the implant, attended the launch. Sian Neame-Smith, the youngest recipient of a Cochlear implant officially launched the book, with both Worthing and Clark deferring to her on stage.

The difference Prof Clark has made to these people’s lives cannot be overstated. “Many people don’t realise what the bionic ear is,” Worthing explains. “They think it’s a sophisticated hearing aid. It’s not – it’s a bionic ear. It’s for people who are completely, totally, profoundly deaf. That’s it. It doesn’t amplify existing hearing. It interfaces directly with the nerve endings in the brain that control hearing and completely bypasses the ear.”

Prof Clark’s own personal faith supported him in difficult times – with peers in the scientific community going so far as to accuse him of training Saunders to lip-read (“Somehow he’d have had to delude everyone into thinking he did it! That would be pretty hard to do” laughs Worthing).

However, not only was his Christian faith a support – it framed his understanding of science as missional. “For him, those in Christ are called to help people,” says Worthing.

“He believes that God can answer prayers through miraculous intervention and heal, but also using the brains and abilities God has given us allows us to develop good medical practice. That’s part of Graeme’s own tradition as a Christian physician and surgeon.

“That’s why he was really keen that came through in a story. Not just – ‘here’s a guy who did a whizz-bang-thing and is quite clever, and now there’s a company, and they’re making quite a lot of money selling it’, but here’s someone who, through care for people and influenced by his own Christian faith, decided to make a difference. He persevered and in the end he was able to.”

The contrast with the reported actions of Martin Shkreli at the time of writing, a hedge fund trader who purchased an AIDS vaccine and raised its price from $13.50 per pill to $750, could not be more stark.

Prof Clark’s religious views led him to briefly write about how he could simultaneously believe in God and support the theory of evolution, a position that earned him criticism from both ‘sides’ of the debate.

“He never saw it coming”, muses Worthing sadly, suggesting that Prof Clark’s withdrawal from developing his thinking on faith and science in public was a loss.

“It’s a pity that he got hammered for that, because I think he would have continued to engage more actively and written more about his faith and his belief. But instead he determined to never publish anything more about science and faith again.”

During the writing of the book, Worthing himself made the decision to leave professional academia to become a parish pastor – for all of six weeks at the time of interview. He now divides his time between a small number of doctoral students and his small Adelaide congregation.

Another book on the history of medicine within the Golden Age of Islam is out soon, and if that is not enough, Worthing is excited about developing ties between his congregation and the rich cultural life of Adelaide. He is particularly excited about a ‘cheekily humourous’ Christmas play, aimed at engaging the local youth more with the church.

Clearly his research into the life of Prof Clark has encouraged some innovative thinking of his own.

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