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Timeline: Prosthetic Limbs Through the Years


Sunday, March 8th, 2015

Some people have lost limbs as a result of automobile accidents, military combat, or some people were born without limbs or have lost limbs due to illness. Approximately 2 million people in the United States have had an arm or leg amputated, and many wear prosthetic limbs. Prosthetics are devices designed to replace missing body parts or to help existing body parts function more effectively. There are currently prosthetic devices for:

  • Arms
  • Legs
  • Eyes
  • Hands
  • Joints
  • Teeth

Prosthetic devices have changed a lot over time thanks to advances in technology, materials, and design. Before the 20th century, many people could not afford professionally made prosthetics, so they created their own out of materials they had, such as a wooden chair or table leg. This is where the term “peg leg” comes from.

Fact: About 2 million people in the US have had an arm or leg amputated. #prosthetics Click To Tweet

RELATED: Rehabilitation After Amputation

Prosthetic Technological Advancements Timeline

Learn more about advances in prosthetics through the timeline of key developments below.

  • 950–710 B.C. –The earliest-known prosthetic toe made from wood and leather was discovered in the 1800s attached to an Egyptian mummy.
  • 600 B.C. – The Greville Chester toe, created by the Egyptians and discovered in 2000 near present-day Luxor, is made of cartonnage — a paper maché material made out of linen, glue, and plaster.
  • 300 B.C. – The oldest known prosthetic leg — the Capua leg — was crafted by Romans from bronze and iron with a wooden core. It was once housed in the Royal College of Surgeons, but was destroyed during World War II bombings. A replica is now at the Science Museum in London.
  • 476–1000 (Middle Ages) – Peg legs and hand hooks were common for those who could afford to have them fitted. Knights were often fitted with prostheses designed to hold a shield or fit in stirrups, but functionality was not a focus. An increasing number of tradesmen crafted prosthetics during this time. For example, those who made watches often used gears and springs to give limbs more detailed functionality.
  • 1400s–1800s (The Renaissance) – Copper, iron, steel, and wood were the most common materials used for prosthetics during this period.
  • 1863 – During the American Civil War, the U.S. started to see advancements in the field of prosthetics. The cosmetic rubber hand was introduced with fingers that could move and various attachments, such as brushes and hooks.
  • 1945 – Following World War II, most limbs were made of a combination of wood and leather. While these materials provided the wearer with several benefits, the prosthetics were heavy, and leather can be difficult to keep clean, especially since it absorbs perspiration.
  • 1970s–1990s – Plastics, polycarbonates, resins, and laminates were introduced as light, easy-to-clean alternatives to wood and leather models. Prosthetics also started being made from lightweight materials such as carbon fiber. Synthetic sockets were custom fitted for each patient to provide an individualized, comfortable, and hygienic fit.
  • 2000-2014 – Prosthetic design has advanced to highly specialized prosthetics, including high-performance, lightweight running blades, responsive legs and feet for navigating varying terrain, and motorized hand prosthetics controlled by sensors and microprocessors.
Did you know the earliest known #prosthesis was a leather toe found on an Egyptian mummy? Click To Tweet

Thanks to new technologies and the improvement of materials, prosthetics have come a long way since the first known wooden toe. Developments in technologies such as robotics, brain-computer interfaces, and 3-D printing have the potential to lead to future advancements the field of prosthetics.

During trials that began in 2011, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have studied brain-computer interface technology, which uses surgically implanted electrodes to send signals from the brain to the prosthetic limb. Their research has allowed trial participants Jan Scheuermann and Tim Hemmes to control a prosthetic arm to reach for, grasp, and place objects.

For more information on prosthetics, please visit the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation webpage. If you or a loved one are interested in support for amputees, please visit the Amp Up! Support Group webpage.

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Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

The Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) provides physician services at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and numerous outpatient clinics throughout western Pennsylvania. The Department’s mission is to maximize the health, function, and well-being of the people they serve by providing the highest quality rehabilitative medical care, conducting highly relevant, cutting-edge research, and training the next generation of clinicians and researchers. Read More