Wars and Invention

This is from a book the Phantom Museum in which various writers were let loose on the Welcome collection of medical curiosities. This is Gaby Wood on Phantom Limbs:

“The American Civil War saw unprecedented numbers of men made limbless; Silas Weir Mitchell’s early estimate of 15,000 tuned out to be conservative – there were around twice that many amputations conducted in the Union Army. The poet Walt Whitman worked in a field hospital as a volunteer nurse, and saw on his arrival the remains of countless operations. There was, he wrote, ‘a heap of feet, legs, arms and human fragments, a full load for a one-horse cart’. But surgery was safer and less painful than it had been before – ether an chloroform were now used, and the longer operation time these allowed made for more effective stumps. In 1862 a year after the war began, the United States government provided funding for one free prosthesis per amputation for soldiers and sailors, and the spread of the Industrial Revolution meant that these devices could be greatly improved.

Whilst the Civil War marked a turning point in the history of American prosthetics, there was no change on this scale in Europe until the First World war. The year before war broke out, there were only 34 amputations performed at St Thomas’s hospital in London, out of a total of 5,483 major operations. By 1918, His Majesty’s Ministry of Pensions was faced with the problem of rehabilitating over 40,000 limbless ex-Service men. In 1915, Queen Mary’s Convalescent Military Hospital was founded in Roehampton in ‘south London to care exclusively for men who had lost their limbs. Artificial limbs were made on site by J E Hanger and Company, the largest artificial limb works in the world, with 400 skilled craftsmen in constant employment.”

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