Early British aviator Marcel Desoutter might have figured he was grounded for good after a 1913 airplane crash cost him a leg.
Realizing he could never fly again with a heavy cumbersome wooden prosthesis, the 19-year-old flier teamed up with his younger brother, Charles Desoutter, an aeronautical engineer, to invent a lightweight metal leg.
The duralumin prosthesis did more than put Desoutter back in the cockpit. The leg was so successful that the brothers started manufacturing the Desoutter Light Metal Limb, which, according to The New York Times, possessed “great commercial possibilities.”
The Desoutter brothers’ firm survives as British-based de Soutter Medical, a worldwide supplier of tools used for orthopedic surgery.
The son of an immigrant French watchmaker, Desoutter qualified as a pilot at 17 years old. But he had to wait until he turned 18 to get a license. Desoutter was so certified in 1912, and he became a flying instructor and test pilot. His career had seemed finished on March 23, 1913, when he lost control of the little French designed monoplane he was flying at the London Aviation Meeting. The wood and fabric, open-cockpit machine dove into the ground at the edge of Hendon Aerodrome.
Desoutter escaped death. But one leg was so badly mangled that it had to be amputated above the knee.
Desoutter hated his wooden leg.
“In an interview M. Desoutter described how, after a year’s misery and discomfort with the ordinary false leg, he started experimenting on one which would be lighter than those made by the usual makers,” the Times reported on June 21, 1914.
Desoutter complained that with a wooden leg like his, “you can’t walk more than 50 yards without feeling done up,” The Times article said. “In walking you, of course, swing each leg, and you can’t swing an artificial leg weighing anything from 6 pounds to 10 pounds very far.”
In 1914, Marcel and Charles founded Desoutter Brothers Limited in London to mass produce the metal legs. The startup was timely; World War I began in August 1914, creating a great need for prostheses and triggering rapid growth and expansion in the fledgling Desoutter enterprise.
The Times article said the Desoutter leg weighed only 2 pounds and “[when] asked whether, in consideration of the weight of a natural leg, 2 pounds was not too light, M. Desoutter replied that if it could weigh nothing at all it would be so much the better.”
The article further quoted Desoutter: “Another thing you must remember is that artificial limbs have to be supported by straps over the shoulders and round the waist, and the more the weight the more you are pulled forward.”
The Times also said that Desoutter’s metal leg was uniquely padded from the knee to the ankle, which provided the wearer another advantage, according to the inventor. “If you crack your leg getting off a bus every one [sic] does not look round to first of all wonder, and then to decide that ‘the poor fellow’s got a wooden leg,’ ” the mustachioed inventor explained.
A new material
In 1913, the Desoutters had made the first documented use of duralumin to produce prostheses. The alloy had been discovered 4 years before. The metal was “essentially aluminium that has been quenched in water and left to harden,” Mary Guyatt wrote in an article published in the British Journal of Design History in 2001.
Duralumin was found to be as light as aluminium – known as aluminum in the U.S. – yet stronger, Guyatt added. She said that Charles Desoutter believed it was scientifically wrong to make an artificial limb from wood. He concluded that if his brother “could ever hope to get back his personal comfort and former activities he must devise an artificial limb in keeping with modern ideas of scientific construction, namely, of metal.”
Guyatt explained: “As the performance of aircraft was impeded by heavy materials, so was that of an artificial limb. Very simply, a lightweight appliance ensured that rather than wasting physical energy carrying around a dead weight, its wearer could preserve that energy for more useful forms of expenditure.”
Guyatt said the Desoutter limb had an immediate advantage over wooden legs. Weighing, on average, 3½ pounds, the duralumin leg was half as heavy as the typical wooden leg and, most importantly, was just as strong, she explained.
In any event, the Desoutters were the only commercial manufacturers of duralumin limbs until 1921, when the firm finally received a contract from the Ministry of Pensions to supply artificial legs to amputee veterans.
Price had been a factor in the ministry withholding a contract. The Desoutter leg went for £80; a wooden leg cost 75% less.
Even so, several better heeled amputees bought Desoutter limbs on their own.
“So impressed were they by these lighter, sleeker models, that ‘in their natural desire for the well-being of their less fortunate comrades’ they ‘began to agitate for the supply of these limbs to [all] pensioners …ir respective of cost,’” Guyatt wrote.
The veterans worked through the Disabled Society, an organization started in 1921 to lobby for the rights of disabled former servicemen in general and for the government provision for a metal prosthesis in particular, according to Guyatt.
Within months of the society’s founding, the government had established a Committee of Enquiry to study the feasibility of putting Desoutter Brothers – still the only manufacturer of duralumin limbs – on the roster of limb-making firms under contract to the Ministry of Pensions.
“The resultant report not only recommended that Desoutter Bros. should indeed be contracted, but also added the ‘definite recommendation in favour [sic] of the issue of metal legs’ made by other companies too,” Guyatt wrote.
The acceptance of the Desoutter Limb had great significance for the whole prosthetics industry. “By the mid-1920s more than three-fifths of all artificial limbs were modelled on the Desoutter Bros. duralumin prototype and 14 firms were supplying metal legs under Ministry of Pensions contracts,” according to Guyatt.
The committee also concluded that in the long run, metal legs were cheaper than wooden ones. “The official life of a wooden limb was 4 years compared with 6 or 8 years for one in metal,” wrote Joanna Bourke in the book Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. “In addition, repairs for metal limbs were considerably less expensive than those in wood. Taking these factors into account, every 12 years a wooden artificial limb typically cost £120 while a metal one cost £96.”
To strengthen their argument for metal legs, the Disabled Society collected a stack of testimonials from Desoutter clients. One man vowed he “would never ‘on any account go back to my old ‘Tree Stump.’ ” Another said he felt “years younger” after switching to metal, according to Guyatt.
In 1924, the brothers moved their booming business from central London to Hendon, the northwest London suburb that encompassed the airfield where Desoutter had crashed 11 years before. They also began producing more power tools which had been a sideline to their limb operation.
Four years later, Desoutter got out of the business and started his own small airplane manufacturing company. But Desoutter Aircraft failed in 1932, the height of the worldwide depression.
Nonetheless, Desoutter remained in aviation. He and a partner formed a company that developed London’s Gatwick Airport, one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. Desoutter, who married in 1918 and fathered three children, was the firm’s manager until his death in 1952 at 58 years old.