A history of looking ahead

A history of looking ahead
prosthetic hand

Artificial hand from the 16th century, Oxford University Museum//Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Have you ever put much thought into the first prosthesis? Have you ever thought about the people who came before, who lived with limb loss and no alternatives, who dealt with the prejudices and shame of their condition because of a lack of understanding and acceptance?

A fascinating article from Gizmodo earlier this month looks at the history of prosthetics and artificial limbs, tracing the history of some of the pioneers who first made strides in developing better prosthetics.

According to the article, amputation was one of the first-recorded surgeries, mentioned in the 4th century BC in “On Joints,” one of the writings of Hippocrates (ever heard of the Hippocratic oath?). Improvements in preventing blood loss made amputation possible, so patients didn’t bleed to death as a result of the procedure.

In more modern times, further medical improvements – including the use of pain-relieving measures and anesthesia, plus infection prevention  – allowed amputations to become more commonplace when limbs could not be saved.

Stewart Emmens, the curator of Community Health at the Science Museum in London, told Gizmodo: “The control of a number of associated factors–blood loss, pain, and infection prevention–has been key to greatly improving the survival chances of the amputee . . . Then, as now, the procedure was often viewed as a failure of treatment.”

Some of the earliest prosthetics were constructed of wood and metal. They were heavy, stiff and cumbersome. Some made movements difficult and noisy. But they could still be life-changers.

James Edward Hangar was an 18-year-old Confederate soldier in the Civil War when his left leg was irreparably damaged by a cannonball launched by Union soldiers. He was discovered by the Union, which treated him. His surgery became the first-recorded Civil War amputation.

Hangar worked to improve prosthetic legs, dissatisfied with the solid-wood prosthetic he was given. His prototype included better hinging and flexing, allowing for a smoother and quieter gait while walking. Sadly, his original patent is lost.

Fortunately, Hangar was not the last to try and improve prostheses for the men and women who live with limb loss. Earlier this month, a robotic arm was approved for use in the U.S.It was created by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). Research into arm and hand prosthesis has lagged relative to legs, knees and ankles.

Currently, most prosthetic hands rely on design elements – like split metal hooks – that have been little updated since 1912. The engineering involved in designing the intricate function of the hand is a daunting task, but not one we should let thwart us from achieving a better quality of life for people living with limb loss, not the least of whom are our wounded warriors.

This is a goal that has withstood the test of time, that has not changed throughout the history of prosthesis. According to Gizmodo, in a 1929 article on the evolution of the artificial limb, American doctor J. Duffy Hancock wrote that “putting a cripple back to work ranks next to saving a life.” 

We will continue to do our part to enhance the lives of people in need.