10 December 2022

How appendicitis taught the bionic ear developer to rely on God

Professor Graeme Clark’s book shortlisted for the Australian Christian Book of 2021 award.

By Stephen Cauchi

23 September 2021

He’s most famous for inventing the bionic ear, but Professor Graeme Clark is also Christian, he’s been an Anglican (twice) and just had his book I Want to Fix Ears shortlisted for the Australian Christian Book of 2021 award. 

Professor Clark, 86, told The Melbourne Anglican he was prompted to write the book because the scientific association the Royal Society of London – of which he is a fellow – required its fellows to write a memoir.

“I just thought the time had arrived,” he said.

“There’s been a great need to understand in science the human element, not just what happened in the laboratory or in the operating theatre, but what goes on – what’s the drama?”

“People think science is very objective, and cool, and dispassionate but it’s not. It’s a human enterprise.”

Professor Clark devoted a chapter of the work to faith.

A member of Pentecostal Doncaster City Church, Professor Clark has also been an Anglican, a Methodist and a Presbyterian – standing opposed to denominational divisions.

Professor Clark said had also in part written his life story so that Christians didn’t feel they had to be apologetic about their faith.

“[It was so] that they can go to university or elsewhere and still be a strong Christian and still study science,” he said.

Professor Clark said he had written technical books before – “science books for an educated audience”, but the aim of I Want to Fix Ears was to talk about his life’s “prayerful journey”.

It mixes autobiography with the story of the development of the world’s first bionic ear, an implant that helps a person with hearing loss hear.

“I had to be honest as to what has driven me. I thought that it was important to put those words down,” Professor Clark said.

“I have tried always to relate my mental approach to science to my faith journey as well. I couldn’t have compartmental thinking such as, ‘This is Sunday [or a] church journey, this is a science journey, [and] ne’er the twain shall meet’.”

Professor Clark said he wrote about the science of bionic ears as simply as he could in I Want to Fix Ears, without talking down the subject. He said he tried to make concepts simple enough that an intelligent layperson or a young high school student could follow them.

Professor Clark’s Christian journey began as a child, when he attended the Methodist church in the NSW town of Camden. But it was a slow start to what became a lifetime of strong faith.

“I learned very little except for the catechism and the minister never talked about the Bible much. As a kid I was pretty bored,” Professor Clark said.

At secondary level, Professor Clark attended Sydney Boys High, then won a scholarship to board at Scots College, a Presbyterian school.

Christianity at that point of his life was not very influential.

“We had a person who taught the scripture in a most uninteresting way and got us to read and memorise verses in the Bible,” Professor Clark said.

As a boarder, he went to St Stephen’s church in Sydney. The students sat up in the loft hearing a “fairly boring” minister.

“We spent quite a lot of time writing notes – some of them not for public viewing – in the hymn books, which were always locked away so no one could read them,” Professor Clark said.

“As young boys we were most interested in the Song of Solomon.”

While his approach to faith might at this point sound flippant, Professor Clark said that as a teenager he did have an underlying belief that there was a God.

He was helped along his faith journey by a “very fine” new scripture teacher who was much more relevant, and spoke to the boys.

“This teacher stressed how wonderful it was to see the birth of his young baby grandchild. He could see in that the hand of, and the wonder of, God in the creation,” Professor Clark said.

“He actually could see something beyond just a mechanical-type universe.”

The teacher also advised students planning to attend the University of Sydney to join the Student Christian Movement there. That is what Professor Clark did, shunning the Evangelical Union in the process.

“Evangelical Union were strictly Bible-orientated,” he said.

“SCM was very free thinking.”

He said that at the SCM the students had “no real Biblical basis for our discussions” but nevertheless, it was a “very prayerful” time.

At university Professor Clark trained to be a surgeon.

“I became like most surgeons: self-confident,” he said.

“You have to be fairly confident when you’ve got people’s lives in your hands. I then went and trained overseas to get my surgical qualification.”

Returning to Australia, Professor Clark became very good at taking out inflamed appendixes at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

At this stage he had no strong affiliation with a church. But while working as a ship’s surgeon, his attitude to faith underwent a change.

So used to removing the appendixes of other people, Professor Clark realised that he himself had the symptoms and signs of acute appendicitis.

He was faced with the prospect of operating on himself.

“I might have had to have taken my appendix out onboard ship with no one to assist me, which was a pretty terrifying experience when you think about it,” he said.

“For the first time in my life, I came to realise I could not depend on my own ability.”

Fortunately Professor Clark was not forced into this line of action. The ship made it to Egypt, where he went to a Catholic hospital.

“I went and prayed and asked for a nun to pray for me and we went to the chapel. Then things seemed to move, shall we say miraculously, and opened up in a very unexpected way,” Professor Clark said.

“I was ultimately able to get back to England.”

There, Professor Clark began associating with other Christian doctors, who he described as “much more Biblically orientated.”

“I grew in my faith. I came back as ship’s surgeon. I gradually came to realise that the Bible too was, properly interpreted, a source of revelation of God,” he said.

It was the early 1960s – when Professor Clark was in his late 20s – that he had his appendicitis episode. After his spell overseas, he returned to Sydney to complete a PhD in brain neurophysiology.

In 1970, he was appointed chair of the Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose and Throat) Department at the University of Melbourne.

It was here that the bionic ear journey began in earnest.

As difficult as Professor Clark’s appendicitis experience was, it prepared him for something far more challenging.

“The most stressful time in my life was from 1970 through to the mid-1980s, [during] the development of the cochlear implant or bionic ear,” he said.

“That has been a really, really tough journey needing a lot of prayer … looking back I see God’s hand.

“There were many times when there was a crisis or difficulty – raising funds or having criticisms – when I had to pray, and saw answers to my prayers, not always in the way I wanted.

“My [faith] journey was a learning one.”

Professor Clark said that he was opposed to two things in faith: creationism and denominations.

“I must say quite definitely I am not, and never have been, a creationist,” he said.

“I am not [a supporter of] ‘intelligent design’. The question of evolution raises its head many times in this debate. Unfortunately, many Christians don’t understand evolution, even scientists don’t understand it properly.”

But opposing creationism did not necessarily mean conflict with the Bible, Professor Clark said.

“I’ve been very inspired by scientists and theologians who have explained how aspects of the Bible are poetic, and some are historical, and some are revelation of God’s dealing, and I think that is very satisfying,” he said.

Professor Clark said that for him “truth is truth”.

“Spiritual truth and scientific materialistic truth should be, for me anyway, interrelated,” he said.

“Some people like Richard Dawkins … say they’re not and they can never be [interrelated], and you can never have any spiritual understanding because that’s not evident in our universe. I don’t hold these views.

“There are many colleagues, many scientific people, very distinguished, who are good, believing Christians.”

Professor Clark said that for him there were two main issues in life and faith.

One, was the question of whether there was a God, and whether that God was a personal God – which he emphasised he believed in through Jesus Christ.

The second was why there was so much tragedy and suffering.

Professor Clark’s first dalliance with Anglicanism came when he was living in Sydney in the 1960s after his stint overseas.

He and his wife attended a church in the suburb Cremorne, where they liked the minister, and were confirmed into the Anglican Church.

After moving to Melbourne, Professor Clark and his wife decided to attend a Methodist church in Eltham, in part because they had attended a Methodist church for some time in Sydney.

Then they decided to go to an Anglican church in the same suburb, later moving to a Presbyterian church, then a Pentecostal church in Doncaster, where they have stayed.

While Pentecostalism was “anathema” to some Presbyterians, Professor Clark said it was not an issue for him, as he did not consider denominations to be important.

“I don’t think Christian faith can be narrowed down to dogmas,” he said.

Professor Clark referenced the views of Lutheran priest Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned and tortured by the Communist regime in Romania.

He said Wurmbrand made the point, which he empathised with, that – theology was a sin.

But Professor Clark said he did not share some key Pentecostal beliefs, such as the necessity of speaking in tongues or the tendency to interpret the Bible from a creationist perspective.

However, Professor Clark said these issues were not worth arguing over.

“One should not be critical of one’s Christian brothers and sisters,” he said.

Professor Clark said he was thrilled to learn his book was one of 10 shortlisted for the Australian Christian Book of 2021 award.

“I was very surprised. I feel honoured. It is a tribute,” Professor Clark said.

Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t by Stephen McAlpine received the award from SparkLit in September.

I Want to Fix Ears is available at bookstores.

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