Technology is moving really fast these days including technology of prosthetic limbs. But have you ever thought where the story of prosthetics first began? Recently I decided to look into the history of prosthetics and was fascinated by the background of it. ..and I thought I’d share some of my favorite parts with you all!
The earliest example of prosthesis ever discovered is not a leg or an arm, it’s actually a toe and it was found in Egypt and dated to between 950-710 B.C.E. The wooden toe belonged to a woman, with attachment straps designed for comfort. The craftsmanship was so extraordinary, the toe could even flex. The reason behind all the fuss about a little toe is because of the cultural norm in Egypt at that time was for everyone to wear open toe sandals. But ancient Egypt wasn’t the only one experimenting with prosthetics. Their neighbors to the North in Ancient Rome were also making early contributions to the history of prosthetics.
The most famous being General Marcus Sergius, who is considered to be the first documented wearer of a prosthetic limb. The General lost his right hand in the second Punic War and was given a prosthesis, fashioned from iron. The iron hand, which must have been extremely heavy, allowed him to hold his shield and continue fighting. The story of his limb loss happened very early in his military career which makes that long career very extraordinary. Later, he was twice captured by the famous Hannibal, and escaped both times.
As advancement in warfare progressed throughout the centuries, limb loss became more common and the need for better and more comfortable prosthetics arose.
In the early sixteenth century, Doctor Ambroise Pare, made significant advances in both amputation surgery, and the development of prosthetic limbs. He was the first to introduce a hinged prosthetic hand, and a leg with a locking knee joint. These amazing advancements, as well as his innovative techniques of attaching the limbs, are still common in modern prosthetics. That’s right, we are still using the locking knee joint, something developed more than 500 years ago!
While there was some progress in the limbs themselves between the 1500s and the 1800s, the major advancements during this time were in amputation surgery. Surgical techniques developed in the mid-19th century allowed doctors to shape the residual limb in such a way that made them more receptive to the attachment of a prosthesis. The limbs weren’t much better, but life was becoming more comfortable for those wearing them.
As recently as 1946, another major game-changing advancement in prosthetics was made. Researchers at UC Berkeley developed a suction sock for lower-limb amputees. This significantly increased the mobility of the wearer and their quality of life. Before this suction sock, amputees would have to attach prosthesis with cumbersome and uncomfortable straps to keep their prosthesis on. And often, the straps didn’t hold on or even work. The suction sock technology is still in use today increasing the comfort and mobility of many amputees.
In the 1970s, an inventor and an amputee, Ysidro M. Martinez, made a huge impact on the history of prosthetics. He developed a lower-limb prosthesis that, instead of trying to replicate the motion of a natural limb, focused on improving gait and reducing friction. These much improved prostheses relieved pressure and made walking more comfortable improving the lives of many future patients.
We live in the most exciting moment in the story of prosthetics. Today, advancements are moving so rapidly. Modern materials like carbon fiber are making prosthetics both lighter and stronger. Biometrics and 3D printing are enhancing the lives of amputees and will continue to do so. The newest and most innovative limbs can even be controlled by thought and muscle, almost like a real limb. That’s simply amazing! Progress since the days of those wooden toes in Egyptian sandals has been and will no doubt continue to be astounding.