A Brief History of Prosthesis

The oldest known prostheses are two toes belonging to Egyptian mummies. An artificial leg dating to about 300 B.C. was unearthed in Italy, which was made of bronze and iron, with a wooden core, apparently for a below-knee amputee.

During the Middle Ages, wars were conducted using swords and other weapons that swiped and otherwise crushed limbs, which led to innovations in prosthetics, especially iron ones for knights. But outside of battle, only the wealthy were lucky enough to be fitted with a peg leg or hand hook for daily function.

In 1530s, Ambroise Pare, who is considered the father of prosthetics, introduced amputation to the medical community and made an artificial limb for the arm and elbow. In 1690s, Pieter Verduyn, a Dutch Surgeon, developed the first non-locking prosthesis for below the knee, which is the basis for the current joint and corset prosthesis.

The American Civil War caused the start of the American prosthetics field. It is reported that there were at least 30,000 amputations on the Union side alone. The Civil War marked the end of the era of wooden peg legs and simple hooks, and since then programs of the VA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ensured ongoing progress in prosthetics design.

Except the explosion of World War I, prosthetics were further enhanced in 1940s because of telephones and phone directories. Medical doctors were able to place illustrated ads, creating more customers.

The history of prostheses is closely related with the history of wars. And the future of prostheses is not just about helping people come back to normal life, but also protecting people from losing limbs. According to our interview with Michael McLoughlin, the ‎Chief Engineer of Research and Exploratory Development at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the development of revolutionizing prostheses will also bring us advanced robots to take place of soldiers in dangerous situation.


Kim Norton, InMotion: A Brief History of Prosthetics

Earl Vanderwerker, A Brief Review of the History of Amputations and Prostheses

Michael MacRae, The Civil War and the Birth of the U.S Prosthetics Industry

Megan Garber, The Perfect, 3,000-Year-Old Toe: A Brief History of Prosthetic Limbs

Dudley Childress, Historical Aspects of Powered Limb Prostheses


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