The 19th Century Prosthetic Leg

Ah yes the joys of working in a 150 year-old Doctor’s Office: dust, bugs and an assortment of the weird and macabre. Over the next few weeks I, Deryn, the Lewes Historical Society Intern, will be your guide into the world of antique torture devices medical equipment. While the Old Doctor’s Office houses the obvious assortment of surgical and amputation tools, the collection also includes a bleeding bowl, cranial drill, at home shock treatment machine and a prosthetic leg.

Yes, a prosthetic leg dating from the 19th century, which greets visitors as they step into the office and begin their tour. The leg of course offers a distinct creepy factor to the whole experience, (trust me, holding it is even creepier), but it also demonstrates how advanced science was for its time. In fact, many of the medical instruments featured in the exhibit have changed very little over the past 150 years. The limb has the ability to bend and even has individual toes and toenails carved into the wood. While not quite on the same level as Luke Skywalkers arm it is certainly more advanced than Captain Hooks hook.  It also features a leather body socket which would have been a new development during the time. In 1863, Dubois L. Parmelee of New York City created the body socket that would attach to the limb and be held in place by atmospheric pressure. Parmelee was however not that first to use prosthetic limbs, in fact the use of prosthetics can be traced back to the early Roman Empire and possibly as far back as Ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have recently discovered a wooden toe on the foot of a female mummy while digging in ancient Thebes. Although it is unknown whether or not this toe served a functional purpose or was simply added upon death to complete the body for the after-life. So far the earliest known prosthetic dates from 300 B.C., known as the Roman Capua Leg and was made from bronze; the leg was destroyed during the German bombing of Britain during World War II.

The science of prosthetic limbs has been slow to develop and has historically been driven forward by times of war, when there is an increased need for new technology and expansion. During the Civil War not only was the body socket developed but gaseous anesthesia was also being used on a wider scale. This allowed for longer surgeries as well as an increase in the survival rate of amputatees. Doctors were also then able to be far more meticulous when performing an amputation, which allowed for a better fit. During World War II the United States government funded extensive research into the development of artificial limbs and also standardized prosthetic training. Currently huge strides are being made thanks to the use of plastics and improved computer technology.

These improvements not only benefit veterans of war but also those who have lost limbs because of complications from disease. In the United States more then 80,000 people a year have a lower limb amputated due to the effects of diabetes. It is projected that there will be 3.6 million people suffering from the loss of a limb by the year 2050. The history of prosthetics is still developing and The Lewes Historical Society holds a great-albeit eerie-piece of this scientific progression.

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One response to “The 19th Century Prosthetic Leg

  1. Have Ann Hilaman tell you about the owner of this leg named Hanger.
    Also Ria has some of her husbands impliment there she is a great interperter
    of the Doctor Office!!

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