The ancient origins of Prosthetics
In the field of medicine, a prosthesis is a man-made device used to replace a missing body part. Although one may think that the use of prosthetic devices is a modern phenomenon, it was already in use several thousand years ago.
The oldest known prosthesis that is in existence is from ancient Egypt. In 2000, researchers in Cairo unearthed a prosthetic big toe made of wood and leather which was attached to the almost 3000 year old mummy of an Egyptian noblewoman. As the ancient Egyptians perceived the afterlife as a perfect version of this life, it would have been important for them to go there with their body parts intact. This is evident in the fact that a variety of prosthetic devices have been found on mummies. These include feet, legs, noses, and even penises. (Yep, the ancient Egyptians believed that procreation was an activity that was possible in the afterlife). While this ideological belief may explain the presence of such prosthetic devices on mummies, some of the ancient Egyptian prosthetic devices may also have had a practical function. A recent research showed that the prosthetic toe of the 3000 year old mummy may have had a practical function, and was used while the woman was still alive. With the help of volunteers without a big toe, it was shown that the use of prosthetics would have made walking around in ancient Egyptian sandals much easier. Thus, this device had a practical function, alongside a possible ideological purpose.
Prosthetic hand – ancient Egypt. Photo source.
The use of prosthetics demonstrates the resourcefulness of people in ancient times. It has been pointed out that apart from very recent times, prosthetic devices were made of basic materials, such as wood and metal, and attached to the body with leather. The use of iron as a material for a prosthetic device, for instance, can be seen in the account of Marcus Sergius. This man was a Roman general who had lost his right hand during the second Punic War. According to this account, Sergius had a prosthetic arm made of iron that allowed him to hold his shield. This meant that he could return to the battlefield and continue fighting. Now, that’s one dedicated military man.
Despite these early advances in ‘prosthetics technology’, there was not much development in this area in the millennia that followed. For instance, iron prosthetic arms and legs were still in use during the Middle Ages, which was more than a thousand years after Marcus Sergius. Apparently, it was the metalworkers who made armours for the knights that also crafted the prosthetic devices for their clients. Interestingly, it has been claimed that the purpose of these devices were not so much practical as aesthetic. It seems that these artificial limbs were used to hide lost limbs, which was considered at that time to be an embarrassing deformity. Given that not much changed in the use of prosthetic devices from the Roman era till the Middle Ages, it is unsurprising that many of us assume that the use of such devices is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The Iron Hand (Eiserne Hand) of Götz von Berlichingen (15 th century). Credit: Wikipedia
Three thousand years on, and prosthetic devices continue to be in use and are just as crucial for people with missing limbs now as they were to people thousands of years ago. Today's devices are much lighter, made of plastic, aluminium and composite materials to provide amputees with the most functional devices. In addition to lighter, patient-moulded devices, the advent of microprocessors, computer chips and robotics in today's devices are designed to return amputees to the lifestyle they were accustomed to, rather than to simply provide basic functionality or a more pleasing appearance. Prostheses are more realistic with silicone covers and are able to mimic the function of a natural limb more now than at any time before.
Featured image: A 3000 year old prosthetic big toe . Photo source: Discovery.
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