Prosthetics through the Ages: From Myth to Practice

Prosthetics through the Ages: From Myth to Practice

Throughout history, mankind has earnestly sought to improve its condition, and that determination is shown clearly in the field of prosthetics. The tragedy of war brought the greatest improvements in prosthetics, so we have courageous wounded veterans to thank for their sacrifices. As a follow up to my previous feature on amputation, we look now at the story of artificial limbs.

In Ancient Mythology

Tezcatlipoca (pronounced teska-tli-pooka) was the Aztec god of creation and revenge. In certain drawings, he is depicted with his right foot gone and a “prosthesis” of obsidian (black volcanic glass) or a bone. The story goes that Tezcatlipoca lost his foot while battling the Earth Monster during creation.

A Celtic Irish god, Nuada, was believed to have lost his left hand in battle. His brother, Dian Chect, the god of healing, made him a hand of silver.

First Written Records

A poem from India, the Rigveda, dated between 3500 and 1800 BC, tells the story of a warrior queen, Vishpala, who loses her leg in battle. She is given a “leg of iron” so that she can return to fight. Around 500 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a prisoner of war, Hegesistratus, who escaped from his bonds by cutting off part of his foot. He fashioned a wooden prosthesis and walked some 30 miles, unfortunately only to be captured and executed. The Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder, wrote of a general who lost a hand in battle between 218 and 210 BC. An iron hand was fashioned for him so he could hold his shield and he, too, returned to battle.

Earliest Practical Prostheses

The Egyptians believed that losing a limb was worse than death and would affect the amputee in the afterlife. They made false body parts out of fiber for burial purposes to “aid” the deceased. However, two extant Egyptian prosthetic toes suggest practical use. The “Greville Chester” toe dates back to 600 B.C. It is made of a mixture of linen, animal glue and tinted plaster. The “Cairo” toe is dated between 950 and 710 B.C. It is made of leather and wood.

To prove that these toes were practical, researchers had replicas made and fitted to two volunteers missing their right big toes. The volunteers walked barefoot and also in imitation Egyptian sandals and their movements were recorded. The prosthetic toes proved to be not only comfortable but also enabled the volunteers to walk with greater ease in sandals. Still wearing the toes but going barefoot, the volunteers’ ability to walk comfortably was greatly diminished. These artificial toes can be seen in the British Museum and at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

In Capua, Italy, an artificial leg made of bronze and iron with a wooden core was discovered in 1858. It was a below-the-knee prosthetic and dates to about 300 B.C.

During the Renaissance

In 1508, a German solider, Gotz von Berlichingen, lost his right arm in the Battle of Landhut. He could afford to buy two technologically advanced iron arms with locking hand positions. He used his good hand to set a series of springs and releases so he could manipulate the artificial hand.

The surgeon Ambroise Paré, an early pioneer in amputation surgery, also developed prostheses for upper and lower extremities. He invented an above-the-knee device with a kneeling  peg leg, a fixed-position foot, adjustable harness and other engineering features that are still used today. A colleague of Paré’s, a locksmith named Lorrain, developed prostheses made of leather, paper and glue, which replaced the heavy iron limbs of the day. Over the ensuing centuries, many improvements were made in prosthetics, but only the wealthy could afford these highly functional limbs. The poor and working class made do with hand-made devices, repairing them as needed.

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