The Department of Otolaryngology was created in 1969 when Professor Graeme Clark was appointed to the inaugural William Gibson Chair in Otolaryngology. At the time Professor Clark was the youngest appointment to a full Chair at the University of Melbourne.
Graeme Clark had already looked into the feasibility of an implanted electronic device (a cochlear implant) to provide deaf people with hearing in his PhD work in the 1960s. In the 1970s, he set about assembling the team to make this dream into a reality. He was able to see the importance of computer technology and a multidisciplinary approach to the problem.
Along with Field Rickards (later to become the Dean of Education at the University of Melbourne) he started the first University training course for audiology in Australia in 1973. This also proved to be crucial to the later success of the cochlear implant. By 1978, the Melbourne team was able to implant their first prototype implant into a deaf person.
The relative success of this first implant and Professor Clark's persistence lead to interest from the Nucleus group of companies (later to become Cochlear Ltd) and Federal Government funding for commercial development of the cochlear implant. By 1985, the Australian multichannel cochlear implant became the first to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the USA for use in adults, and in 1990 for children.
The clinical research and development of audiological procedures for cochlear implants during this time was coordinated by Richard Dowell, later to become Professor of Audiology and Head of Department. As cochlear implant application spread rapidly around the world, audiology as a profession was also developing and new courses started up around the country to meet the growing need for hearing care.
Under the guidance of Richard Dowell, the one year postgraduate diploma course in audiology was converted to a two year Masters degree in 1998. The demand for audiologists has continued to grow with student numbers set to reach 100 in 2010 from about 20 in the early years of the course.
The Department remains focused on the improvement of hearing through technology and much of the activity still centers around cochlear implants. Audiology teaching is also a major activity and the Department would claim that the Melbourne course is the equal of any audiology course in the world. Other aspects of hearing research have also developed within the Department including biological work to protect and restore hearing, stem cell research aimed at replacing receptor cells in the inner ear, perceptual research to better understand different forms of hearing loss and investigations into the causes and treatment of balance problems