Artificial Limbs: From Peg Legs to Superhumans

When I created this blog it was with the intention of exploring pieces which can be categorised as what I call “assistive equipment”. Ask anyone who uses such equipment (especially things geared towards the older population) to describe it in one word, and their answer is likely to be along the lines of “beige”. Whilst there have been recent attempts to make such tools more exciting, aesthetic concerns are given far less consideration than functional practicalities (not without due reason I may add, there’s no point in having a perfectly co-ordinating walking stick which can’t support your weight)

However, one particular type of assistive equipment has garnered more attention than most, and an exploration of the history and development of artificial limbs can tell us a lot about cultural conceptions of (dis)ability, normality and the limits and possibilities of the human body.

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Prosthetic Legs, 1612 (Wellcome Images) [Image: a line drawing of two prosthetic legs. On the left a tapered “peg-leg” style, on the right a sophisticated prosthesis with a flexible knee joint. Text above reads “Legges of Wood”]

Evidence exists of artificial limbs existing as far back as Ancient Greece and Egypt, and as the above image shows, by the 17th century artificial legs were beginning to look similar to the sorts of protheses we see today (well, sort of anyway). The two different types of legs in the image likely show what would have been available to you depending on how much money you had. On the left is the classic “peg leg”, which would have been widely produced rather than fitted to the individual. Unlike the leg on the right, which appears to have a flexible knee, it would have been obvious from the way they walked that a person was using a “peg leg”. The leg on the right is more likely to have been a bespoke design, and because of it’s knee hinge, the owner’s impairment may have been less visible.

In Europe, the late 18th and early 19th century saw the growth of industrialisation, as well as a number of wars. Because of this more people, either through accident or injury, were in need of artificial limbs, and the business of manufacturing them grew. One expert in this area was Henry Heather Bigg, whose 1855 book on the “construction and application” of artificial limbs is of particular interest as it reflects some of the stigma and anxieties surrounding visible bodily differences during the period. There’s also a story about a bear hunter, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I first heard about some of the advances in the production of artificial limbs at the Victorian Body Parts Conference in September 2013. In her talk, Clare Stainthorp (University of Birmingham) uses the example noted in 1885 by a Henry Robert Heather Bigg (who I can only presume is the son of the other Henry Bigg, either that or he wrote his first book at the age of two), of the troubles he encountered trying to create a “natural feeling” artificial hand for a nobleman’s daughter. Claire’s talk was fascinating and she argued that the function of prosthetic limbs were both classed and gendered. Whereas men had prostheses made primarily for function, the main purpose of the hand created for this nobleman’s daughter was to disguise her impairment, to make her appear “normal”.

This was particularly fascinating to me as the process of normalisation is one that is of concern to many scholars in disability studies and the extent to which disabled people should conceal their impairments, normalise and “work” on their bodies can still be seen in the work done on prosthetic limbs today.

When reading Bigg Sr’s book, many of the points raised in Claire’s talk rang true. Alongside functionality, Bigg seemed particularly concerned with disguising impairments from other people, lest they find themselves swooning from the shock (which we all know happened a lot in polite Victorian society). When discussing a “box-leg” (or peg-leg) in which the knee joint is preserved but sticks out of the back of the protheses, he states that a leg in which the knee and lower part of the leg is contained may be preferable as it would;

“avoid the awkwardness of upsetting everyone who, not expecting to find a man’s leg projecting many inches beyond his chair, accidentally trips against it” (p27)

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“The horror, the horror” [Image: a colour drawing of an unconscious woman in Victorian clothing in the arms of a man with a delightful moustache wearing a red jacket]

The ways in which class impacted on perceptions of artificial limbs is also considered by Bigg, who mused on whether it was better to lose an arm or a leg. He decided that for those in the “higher classes of life” in addition to functionality, “it becomes a requisite to conceal the loss”. He decided that for these “higher class” amputees, losing a leg would be preferable as it would be more easily disguised (thus preventing even more fainting ladies), but for people who worked jobs in skilled or manual labour, the nature of their profession must be considered, and those who were in need of an arm prosthesis may benefit from one which was more practical than aesthetically pleasing.

One such patient of Dr Bigg’s was an un-named yet quite clearly badass man who requested a dagger attachment in lieu of a hand ”to defend himself against the attack of any wild animal he might in his travels encounter”. Not simply overcautious about potential bear attacks, Bigg explains that ”as his pursuit was that of collecting furs for the Hudson Bay Company, such precaution was highly necessary”. Amazing! Someone make a film about this knife-arm-wielding, bear-wrestling dude immediately.

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The bear wouldn’t stand a chance [Image: a photograph of a friendly-looking grizzly bear]

Moving in to the 21st century, technological advancements and a growing disability studies discipline means that the conversation surrounding artificial limbs is no longer simply form versus function.

Which image comes in to your head when you think of artificial limbs? It’s likely that the first thing you think of is the carbon-fibre “cheetah” running blades worn by many para-athletes. It’s not surprising that these types of prostheses are familiar to so many people as they are widely seen in advertisements, magazine shoots and sports coverage. They are the perfect example of contemporary discussions surrounding artificial limbs as they raise questions of beauty, normality, enhancement, technology and ability.

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Aimee Mullins on the cover of Dazed and Confused magazine, 1998 [Image: a photograph of Aimee Mullins. She has her back to the camera and is facing toward the camera over her shoulder. She is wearing carbon-fibre running blades and tight leggings. The text on the cover reads “Fashion able?. Alexander McQueen guest editor issue”

American runner, model and actor Aimee Mullins was one of the first amputee athletes to enter the public consciousness, not only because of her athletic performances but also her visibility as a magazine and runway model. In her 2009 TED conference talk, titled “My 12 Pairs of Legs”, Mullins discusses the ways in which technology has changed how we view those who have prosthetic limbs;

“A prosthetic limb does not represent the need to replace loss any more. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space, so that people society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities.”

Mullins views her collection of legs, which include her running blades, hyper-realistic “Barbie legs” and an intricately carved wooden pair (which were made for her to wear during an Alexander McQueen catwalk show), as a tool for shaping and changing her appearance and identity. For Mullins, prosthetic limbs are no longer about becoming normal or of fitting in and hiding your impairment, but about changing how we view beauty and difference.

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Mullins wearing her “cheetah” blades (left) and her wooden legs designed by Alexander McQueen (right) [Image: Left- a black and white photograph of Aimee Mullins laying on her back with her legs in the air. She is wearing black underwear and her carbon-fibre running blades. Right-  a wooden leg. It is intricately carved with flowers and leaves and the foot is shaped to resemble a high-heeled shoe]

The advances in prosthesis technology also raise questions of what it means to be disabled. The traditional “medical” model of disability tells us that disability is a personal tragedy, an individual affliction affecting a person. In contrast, the social model of disability makes the distinction between “impairment” (whatever condition a person has) and “disability” which is the social positioning inscribed on people with certain physical or cognitive differences. For example, a person may have a condition which means they use a wheelchair, but they are “disabled” by a society which does not accommodate them, either through environment or by attitudes, stereotypes or stigma.

When South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, a double below-the-knee amputee, set his sights on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, questions were raised regarding whether his prosthetic limbs would provide him with an advantage over non-disabled athletes. The International Association of Athletics Federations banned ”any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”, excluding Pistorius from competing against non-disabled athletes. With this ruling, we can see how the lines between ability and disability are blurred by technological advancements. In Pistorius’ case, being disabled did not adhere to the stereotype of “less able” than non-disabled people, instead his need to use prostheses was framed as an advantage.

This brings us to some contemporary questions which arise when discussing the use of prostheses. To what extent can we still frame disabled bodies as “less than” their non-disabled counterparts, when there is the potential for prostheses to provide an advancement over organic limbs? If we view disability through the social model, people such as Pistorius and Mullins are disabled (because of their bodily differences) but their athletic abilities are far beyond many non-disabled people.

Similarly, as images of Mullins have shown, society’s concept of normative, non-disabled beauty can also be challenged. With such manufacturers as The Alternative Limb Project we are seeing the development of prostheses which do not attempt to mimic natural limbs. Instead they are beautiful and functional in a way which does not attempt to hide their wearer’s impairment and real aesthetic pleasure can be taken from their ingenious bespoke designs.

Obviously these types of prostheses don’t come cheap (try getting a diamond-encrusted leg like the one made by the Alternative Limb Project on the NHS), and are therefore only available to a small number of people. But this marriage of technology and art has the potential to change the ways in which society views disabled bodies, and allow people to take pride in their differences instead of attempting to emulate so-called “normal” bodies.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find my glue gun. I’ve got some crystals I need to stick to my leg brace.

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