A Brief History of Prosthetics

A type of artificial leg invented by Samuel B. Jewett, 1869. National Museum of Health and Medicine

The history of prosthetics and amputation surgery begins at the very dawning of human medicine. In the three great western civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome, the first true rehabilitation aids recognized as prostheses were made.

Early use of prosthetics goes back to at least the fifth Egyptian Dynasty (2750-2625 B.C.). The oldest known splint was unearthed by archaeologists from that period. But the earliest known written reference to an artificial limb was made around 500 B.C.

During the time, Herodotus wrote of a prisoner who escaped from his chains by cutting off his foot, which he later replaced with a wooden substitute. An artificial limb dating from 300 B.C., was a copper and wood leg that was unearthed at Capri, Italy in 1858.

In 1529, French surgeon, Ambroise Pare (1510-1590) introduced amputation as a lifesaving measure in medicine. Soon after, Pare started developing prosthetic limbs in a scientific manner. And in 1863, Dubois L Parmelee of New York City made a significant improvement to the attachment of artificial limbs by fastening a body socket to the limb with atmospheric pressure. While he was not the first person to do so, he was the first to make it practical enough to be used in medical practices. In 1898, a doctor named Vanghetti came up with an artificial limb that could move through muscle contraction.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that major advancements were made in the attachment of lower limbs.

In 1945, the National Academy of Sciences established the Artificial Limb Program as a way to improve the quality of life of World War II veterans who were suffered the lost of limbs in combat.  A year later, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley developed a suction sock for the above-knee prosthesis.

Fast forward to 1975. That was the year an inventor named Ysidro M. Martinez' took things a major step further by creating a below-the-knee prosthesis that avoided some of the problems associated with conventional artificial limbs. Instead of replicating the natural limb with articulated joints in the ankle or foot which tended to lead to poor gait, Martinez, an amputee himself, took a theoretical approach in his design. His prosthesis relies on a high center of mass and is light in weight to facilitate acceleration and deceleration and reduce friction. The foot is also considerably shorter to control acceleration forces, further reducing the friction and pressure.

New advances to keep an eye involve the growing use of 3-D printing, which has allowed for the fast, precise manufacturing of artificial limbs that have traditionally have been custom-built by hand. The U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health has recently established the 3D Print Exchange program as a way to provide researchers and students with the necessary modeling and software tools to fabricate prosthetics using 3D printing machines

But beyond prosthetic limbs, here’s another fun fact: Pare could also have laid claim to be the father of facial prosthetics, making artificial eyes from enameled gold, silver, porcelain and glass.

That's your fun fact of the day