The local surgeon who pioneered the bionic ear
“He’s a medical pioneer yet few outside of hearing circles know his name”
When Sue Walters was stuck down at 22 by meningitis and rendered stone deaf, it felt like Get Smart’s cone of silence had been jammed shut around her head.
In despair, her parents took her to ENT surgeon and then Wahroonga resident, Professor Bill Gibson. In August 1984, he restored her hearing with a ‘bionic ear’.
It was an historic operation, a first for both the surgeon and for NSW. When an elated Sue heard her first words after months of silence, she said she “started to feel connected to humanity again”.
The life-changing experiences of more than 40 of Professor Gibson’s patients including Sue Walters are included in his recently published biography, Bill Gibson: pioneering
bionic ear surgeon. Cochlear implant support group CICADA commissioned medical writer Tina Allen to write the biography so the inspirational story of this pioneering surgeon and his patients would be preserved and reach a wider audience.
Professor Gibson’s patients were among the first people in the world to receive the bionic ear, invented by Professor Graeme Clark and his team in Melbourne. The term ‘bionic ear’ sounds fanciful but its 22 electrodes allow profoundly deaf recipients to hear the complete speech range, and even music.
“After implanting the first 20 adults in NSW, Professor Gibson made the brave decision in 1987 to operate on a four year-old girl, who was the youngest recipient of the bionic ear in the world,” explains Tina Allen.
“Within six months of her operation, Holly McDonell had started speaking again and was able to attend kindy. It had been a difficult decision for Holly’s parents to go ahead with such a controversial operation and her mother Viktorija said afterwards: “‘That miracle, I think we got it’.”
This kind and gifted surgeon would together with his wife Alex throw Christmas parties at the couple’s Clissold Avenue home for early cochlear implant recipients. Held in the back garden of the Wahroonga home around the pool, guests volunteered to collect cutlery from a local restaurant, tables from a nearby private boys’ school and produce from the markets.
Once he started operating on more children, they and their families also became regular attendees at these Yuletide events, as well as at picnics at Lane Cove River Park organised by the cochlear support group.
‘Prof’ as many patients call him, participated in the fun run and games at these picnics. Sue Walters said: “‘Prof’ is such a fun guy. You don’t expect your surgeon to get involved, but he threw himself into all the activities.”
He was secretly nominated in 1995 by Members of the Rotary Club of Berowra for the Australian of the Year Award. The nomination paper described him as a “mild-mannered, unassuming, almost retiring man” and resulted in him receiving a general division award (AM) from the Governor-General, Bill Hayden. The Club also supported Professor Gibson by supplying playground equipment for his Children’s Cochlear Implant Program, where toddlers received rehabilitation to learn how to listen and speak.
Between 1984 and 2014, Professor Gibson performed the bionic ear operation more than 2000 times, making him one of the most prolific surgeons in his field. In January this year, Bill Gibson’s AM was upgraded to an AO for ‘distinguished service to medicine, [and for] the advancement of cochlear implant programs.’
Now 73, he no longer operates but continues to see the loyal patients who ring the Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre (SCIC) in Gladesville to make appointments with ‘Prof’.
Author Tina Allen describes the seven years she took to research and write his biography as a “rich and rewarding experience”, and felt sad when the process finally came to an end.
“He’s a medical pioneer yet few outside of hearing circles know his name,’’ said Tina. She was inspired by a quote from the late humanitarian and ophthalmologist, Fred Hollows when she wrote the last lines of the biography: ‘The basic attribute of mankind is to look after each other. The desire to help others still burns brightly in William Peter Rea Gibson.’
Prof Gibson with Holly Taylor and her mother Victorija McDonell
Professor Bill Gibson and early cochlear implant recipient Sue Walters