The Pick - Reconstructing lives

March 8, 2012

Reconstructing lives

National War Museum, Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, 9 March-24 February 2013

"We have now four miles of beds - and not eighteen inches apart," Florence Nightingale reported from the Crimean War in 1854. "In all our corridors, I think we have not an average of three limbs per man."

Such an appalling statistic reflects a constant of war throughout history. Equally constant and ever more effective have been the attempts to create replacement limbs. While simple "peg legs" date back to Roman times, advances in medicine since the 19th century have enabled more and more people to survive amputations and rebuild their lives.

The horrors of the First World War inevitably led to greatly increased research in this area. The Times declared in 1920 that "Next to the loss of life, the sacrifice of a limb is the greatest sacrifice that a man can make for his country". Yet just two years earlier, an advertisement for artificial limbs could make the optimistic (or tasteless) claim that "The loss of a leg is no longer one of the tragedies of war."

This exhibition tracks the history of the ever-more-ingenious prosthetic devices designed for people who have lost limbs or had them amputated as a result of war, accident or severe circulation problems. It also incorporates individual stories revealing changing styles of heroism. In 1931, for example, Sir Douglas Bader could describe a ghastly crash with the phlegmatic words: "the leg, the Spitfire and I had all parted company".

An iron hand, probably from the late 16th century, looks like an armoured gauntlet, although the latch and springs controlled by the other hand probably required the skills of a locksmith. When it was common and even fashionable to wear gloves, people without hands often did so too. From the mid-20th century there was increasing demand for life-like artificial hands, some involving up to 20 layers of silicon in subtly different colours. Today's i-limb hand, pioneered by the Edinburgh company Touch Bionics, incorporates five individually powered fingers.

Reconstructing Lives also charts technological advances from "Anglesey legs" - named after a marquis who fought in the Battle of Waterloo - to the low-cost "Jaipur legs" still worn by thousands in the developing world, and the "Orion knee", made by Endolite in 2011, where a microprocessor "guesses" what the wearer wants to do.

Recent developments allow former soldiers to pursue active and sometimes highly athletic lives. Chris Moon was taking part in marathons only a year after he lost a lower arm and a leg while clearing landmines in Mozambique. Indeed, as he points out, the latest prostheses are sometimes seen as conferring an unfair advantage and led to an unexpected intense debate: "Should amputee runners compete on level terms with other runners?"

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