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Artist’s tribute to Cochlear implant inventor

Volume 8 Number 9 September 3 - October 8 2012

Portrait of Professor Graeme Clark, inventor of the Cochlear (detail), acrylic on canvas, 153 x 122cm, on show at the ‘for we are young and free’ exhibition at the Toyota Community Spirit Gallery in Port Melbourne .
Portrait of Professor Graeme Clark, inventor of the Cochlear (detail), acrylic on canvas, 153 x 122cm, on show at the ‘for we are young and free’ exhibition at the Toyota Community Spirit Gallery in Port Melbourne .

Artist and Cochlear implant recipient Peter Gresham has exhibited an intriguing portrait of Professor Graeme Clark, inventor of the now 30-year-old bionic ear, in the ‘for we are young and free exhibition’. By Gabrielle Murphy.

A realisation of his encroaching deafness came to Peter Gresham out of the blue. He was standing at the photocopier, jiggling his keys as he waited for it to spit out the copies he’d sent to print, when suddenly he realised that what he could hear with his left ear registered absolutely nothing on his right.

An audiologist confirmed that he was suffering significant nerve deafness, and after 10 years Mr Gresham eventually bowed to the inevitable and resorted to wearing a hearing aid. This afforded him 40 to 50 per cent hearing in his good ear, but had no positive effect on his bad one, leaving it with 100 per cent hearing loss. 

Another 10 years on, Mr Gresham was struck down with Ménière's Disease which, he says, “destroyed a large portion of my ‘good’ hearing-aid ear. My hearing then fluctuated, and finally settled at 15 per cent, which it remains at today.”

At the time Mr Gresham sought and received his first diagnosis of hearing loss, Graeme Clark was appointed the Foundation Professor and Chairman in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne – the first such chair in Australia and making him the youngest clinical professor in Australia. He combined this role with headship of the University’s Cochlear Implant Program.

During this period, from 1970 until 2003, Professor Clark built on the pioneering research he commenced in 1967 into discovering how to code speech with electrical stimulation of the auditory nerve and brain pathways, and in 1978 became the first person to develop and successfully perform the world’s first multi-channel cochlea implant at Melbourne’s Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.

Peter Gresham is one of the 1.2 per cent, or approximately 200,000 adult Australians who experience severe to profound deafness and whose hearing loss is such that they are unable to benefit from even the most powerful hearing aid.

“I was told of the cochlea ear implant option by my hearing specialist,” says Mr Gresham, “and went to the Eye and Ear Hospital for further audiological tests which were conducted over a couple of years and finally resulted in me being considered as a candidate for an implant.”

“Before the implant I had stopped going out and sold all my records. Post implant I’m out and about and listening to music again. In fact, I’ve even started playing harmonica with a band again.”

“My day job as a print rep essentially involves talking to people all day every day. Hearing-assist accessories for implants and hearing aids have been fantastic for my work, especially for phone communication. I can now also hear clearly in large meeting rooms and hardly miss a word.”

Peter Gresham’s portrait of Professor Clark was accepted for the ‘for we are young and free exhibition’ on show at the Toyota Community Spirit Gallery until 26 October. The exhibition showcases the work of established and emerging artists in an exploration of the diversity of contemporary Australian life.

“I do not generally identify as someone with disability,” says Mr Gresham, “and although it was not an absolute prerequisite, while considering a response to this exhibition which largely features the work of artists with disabilities, I realised that with my 95 per cent deafness, I was indeed disabled.

“Consequently I thought I should champion the cause of the man who is changing lives for tens of thousands of people across the world who, like me, can now hear clearly and live and work accordingly.

“Professor Graeme Clark is the reason why today I don’t feel disabled. I consider him a great Australian innovator who has contributed enormously to society and who still today shows great Aussie creative invention.”

Research to improve the quality of hearing continues at the University of Melbourne in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology under the stewardship of Professor Richard Dowell who set up the initial clinical trial in 1982. 

“Ongoing research here at the University and in partnership with the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital has helped refine the cochlea implant device and continues to improve clinical outcomes,” says Professor Dowell. 

Peter Gresham has now obtained Professor Graeme Clark’s agreement to sit for him in the run-up to next year’s Archibald Prize.