Nobody knows exactly when people started stuffing arch supports inside their footwear.
The feet of King Tut, who ruled Egypt from about 1332 to 1323 B.C.E, were so bad that the famous pharaoh wore orthopedic sandals. Other ancients fought foot pain by padding their sandals with wool cloth.
First arch support born
Source: © Image from the History of Medicine (NLM)/Public Domain
Humans did not walk on true orthoses until the 20th century. Royal Whitman, MD, FRCS, an acclaimed American orthopedic surgeon, is often credited with inventing the first arch support. Called the Whitman Brace, the appliance was fashioned from 18-gauge to 20-gauge sheet steel stateside.
“But in England we prefer aluminum bronze, as it is less likely to rust,” A.H. Tubby explained in his two volume book, Deformities, Including Diseases of the Bones and Joints: A Text-Book of Orthopaedic Surgery, published in 1912.
The son of a Civil War veteran, Whitman was born in Portland, Maine in 1857. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1882 and also studied medicine in London. Whitman became a celebrated orthopedic surgeon in the United States and the United Kingdom. He died in New York City in 1946, having spent many years on the staff at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Whitman claimed his orthosis, combined with a sturdy, accommodative shoe or boot, could do wonders for people with pes planus, or fallen arches. Tubby agreed, claiming Whitman’s braces were “the best known, and on the whole the most efficient” of the valgus plates. He added that Whitman’s device was better than “all other kinds of support for flat foot.” He explained that the brace “supports the foot, and does not restrain its normal movements. In fact it increases their range.”
The arch support was unpadded and featured flanges that rose toward the ankle. Orthopedists commonly prescribed it for pes planus patients.
‘More a weapon than a brace’
“The Whitman Plate/brace is more of a weapon than a brace,” Dennis Janisse, CPed, owner of Milwaukee-based National Pedorthic Services, said. “The Whitman was pretty much at its end stages when I came into the field of pedorthics.”
He said the brace was solid and heavy. “It would be modified literally by hammering it with a hammer over an anvil/vise, whatever. The device made a lot of sense because, unlike today’s foot orthoses, the Whitman had a lateral flange that helped control the heel. The concept, and not a bad one, is that if you control the heel, you can limit affect of motion in the entire foot.”
The first step in fitting the brace to feet was plaster casting. The brace was cut, shaped and formed onto the mold. Before the patient was to walk on the arch supports, the inner edge and sole of the footwear was supposed to be thickened.
Image: Craig B, O&P Business News
“The result is that when he throws his weight on the outer side of the foot the external part of the brace is pressed down, and the internal flange is lifted towards the inner side of the foot. It is instinctively drawn away from the pressure, and thus towards the normal contour,” according to Tubby. Thus, the wearer could not “turn the foot outwards in walking because this causes discomfort. He is therefore compelled to keep the foot to the front.”
Efficient and adaptable
Tubby concluded that “there is no arrangement so efficient. A shoe which aids the plate in holding the foot in an attitude of slight adduction should be made.”
Tubby said there was no need to fasten the Whitman Brace to the footwear, “as it adapts itself to the foot completely and retains its position.” He added that “in the most favorable cases the brace should be worn from 3 to 6 months, and if any symptoms of trouble reappear it must again be used.”
Tubby wrote that long experience with the Whitman Brace taught “that with careful after-treatment one-third of the cases will be quite relieved within a year, one-twelfth will gain no benefit, and of the rest it may be said that they are considerably helped.”
Stateside, German-born Otto Frederick Schuster began fabricating the Whitman Brace shortly after he migrated to New York in 1906, according to the 1987 article “Foot Clinics of New York and Otto F. Schuster.” The article described the orthosis as “a metal appliance designed to prevent eversion in ‘weakfoot’ or, as Richard Otto later called it, ‘the partially compensated foot.’”
Schuster O. Foot Clinics of New York and Otto F. Shuster. A Fast Pace Forward: Chronicles of American Podiatry. 1987.
Tubby A.H. Deformities, Including Diseases of the Bones and Joints: A Text-Book of Orthopaedic Surgery. London: 1912.