The History of Prosthetic Legs

Written by jack s. waverly
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Prosthetics have been in use since before written history as a replacement to lost limbs due to accidents, disease or battle injuries. Prosthetics have been as simple as wooden peg legs or as complex as involving gears and wires. Prosthetic legs, like many medical devices, developed over time as better methods and materials were discovered. The cost of prosthetic legs has also decreased with developments and improvements.

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Earliest Prosthetic

The earliest known prosthetic leg was found in 1828 in Italy. The leg was dated to 300 B.C. and was made with lead and iron along with wood filler. The prosthetic was for an amputation below the knee. There are reports of well known persons who have also received prosthetic devices during Persian and Roman times.

Peg Legs

During the Dark Ages, the 15th century, most prosthetics were peg legs. These were mainly reserved for wounded soldiers and rich citizens. Warriors were fitted with a peg leg so that they could ride their horse into battle, but these were not meant for daily use. Those who were rich enough to afford a prosthetic leg could have one made for daily use. Prosthetics were made by a range of individuals from armorers to watchmakers.

Pre-19th Century

Prosthetic legs that can be recognised as such were being manufactured in the 16th century. The Iron Leg, created by Ambroise Pare, is the first known prosthetic to use an articulated knee joint; he was also responsible for introducing many of the modern surgical procedures for amputation. In 1696, the first nonlocking prosthetic leg was developed by Pieter Verduyn. It would become the basis for current modern joint devices.

19th Century

James Potts designed a prosthetic leg that lifted the toe when bending the knee with the use of artificial tendons. The American Civil War raised interest and advanced technology because of the high amount of amputations. The American government started to fund research and manufacture of prosthetics at this time. Lighter prosthetics were created using wood instead of metal. Functional stumps that improved the fit of the prosthetic were created because of the improvement of anesthetics. In 1839 the leg developed by Potts was brought to the U.S. by William Selpho and became known as the "Selpho Leg." New methods of foot amputation helped in the ability to use a foot prosthetic instead of a prosthetic leg when it was unnecessary in 1843 by James Syme. Three years later brought the addition of an anterior spring and smooth appearance by Benjamin Palmer. His device simulated a more natural looking movement. In 1863 a suction socket, polycentric knee and movable foot was invented by Dubois Parmlee. The first suggestion to use aluminium instead of heavier steel was made in 1868 by Gustav Hermann.

20th Century

The first major improvement of the 20th century came in 1912 when an aluminium prosthetic leg was created by Marcel and Charles Desoutter after Marcel lost a leg in an aviation accident. James Hanger would start a company, Hanger Prosthetics, just ahead of the 1900s, and it became a leader in prosthetic development. Modern prosthetic legs are made of aluminium, plastics and composites. This has made them lighter and more adaptable to the needs of amputees.

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