Wilson Awarded National Academy of Engineering’s Prestigious Russ Prize

Editor's note: Blake Wilson E'74 will give a public talk on the development of the modern cochlear implant at 5:00 p.m. Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Baldwin Auditorium on Duke’s East Campus as the featured speaker of the Duke Engineering 75th Anniversary Lecture, co-sponsored by Duke University’s Office of the Provost, Pratt School of Engineering and School of Medicine. The lecture and following reception are free and open to the community. Learn more and reserve a seat (RSVP by Feb. 26, 2015)

Blake S. Wilson, adjunct professor of biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and surgery at Duke University and co-director of the Duke Hearing Center, has been awarded the 2015 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize for “engineering cochlear implants that enable the deaf to hear.”

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) announced today that Wilson would share the 2015 Russ Prize with four others who also played instrumental roles in the development of the cochlear implant.  The prize, established in 1999 by Ohio University with a gift from alumnus Fritz Russ and his wife, Dolores, is a $500,000 award given biennially to honor bioengineering achievements that significantly improve the human condition. It is considered the top prize in the world for bioengineering.

The award will be presented at a gala dinner event on Feb. 24 to honor Blake Wilson; Graeme M. Clark, laureate professor emeritus of the University of Melbourne; Ingeborg J. Hochmair-Desoyer, CEO and CTO of MED-EL Medical Electronics GmbH; Michael M. Merzenich, professor emeritus of the University of California, San Francisco; and Erwin S. Hochmair, professor emeritus at the Institute of Experimental Physics, University of Innsbruck.

“This year’s Russ Prize recipients personify how engineering transforms the health and happiness of people across the globe,” said NAE President C.D. Mote Jr. “The creators of the cochlear implant have improved remarkably the lives of people everywhere who are hearing impaired.”

 According to the National Institutes of Health, about 36 million adults in America alone report some degree of hearing loss, ranging from difficulty hearing some high-pitched sounds to total deafness. The development of the cochlear implant (CI) provided new medical options to treat hearing loss by translating sounds into electrical signals the brain can interpret and sending those signals directly to the auditory nerve—bypassing damaged or absent sensory hair cells in the inner ear.  To date more than 320,000 people worldwide have received a cochlear implant; cochlear implants have proven especially beneficial in children.

Wilson began his work full-time on CIs in the 1980s when he developed the “continuous interleaved sampling” system. This model made it possible for CI recipients to understand words and sentences with far greater clarity than before. Wilson’s breakthrough provided the basis for sound-processing strategies used widely in today’s CIs and resulted in a rapid expansion in the number of deaf and nearly deaf persons who have received a cochlear implant in one or both ears. Today, the great majority of CI users can talk on phones and follow conversations in relatively quiet environments.

“Blake Wilson has made seminal contributions to developing one of the greatest advances of modern medicine,” said Tom Katsouleas, Vinik Dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, who nominated Wilson for the award. “Bringing a person from total or nearly complete deafness to highly useful hearing is a stunning achievement that many thought would be impossible. The work of Blake and his collaborators is a shining example of the power of engineering to address some of humanity’s grandest challenges, and we are exceptionally proud to count him as an alumnus and colleague.”

“Blake’s receipt of the Russ Prize is yet another example of the significant impact of his achievements in improving the quality of life for individuals all around the world, and importantly, demonstrates the enormous power achieved when the worlds of engineering and medicine intersect,” said Nancy C. Andrews, MD, PhD, dean, Duke University School of Medicine.

“I am thrilled to receive with my esteemed colleagues this singular honor,” said Wilson in a recent interview. “We all stood on the broad shoulders of great scientists, engineers and physicians who preceded us in our work, and we all were helped mightily by our coworkers. I am so very grateful for the spectacular education I received at Duke, which enabled me to do something special later in life, and for the partnership of my many magnificent colleagues at Duke and elsewhere who made our shared achievements possible. I am lucky and grateful.”