Harry Truman was president when Alfred “Al” Denison, CP, became a certified prosthetist.
Gas cost 16 cents a gallon; Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck, won the Oscar for best picture; and the Cleveland Indians won the World Series.
The year was 1948. Denison, 91, still reports for work on Fridays at the Oak Park, Ill., branch of Scheck and Siress Orthotics and Prosthetics — part-time employment that nonetheless qualifies him as the oldest working certified prosthetist in the United States.
“My mother lived to 100,” he told O&P News. “I had heart surgery 2 years ago, but I am fine now.”
“He comes to work every Friday,” said John Angelico, CP, the branch manager. “He drives himself – 10 miles. It is an absolute joy having him.”
Angelico said Denison, whose American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics (ABC) certification number is 000023, has been his mentor. “Denny has taught me a lot, especially about transfermoral prosthetics and alignment and fitting techniques,” Angelico said.
Denison also “has these clever little tools he designed for different situations, like removing a screw that’s frozen,” he added. “It is a screwdriver that fits into a drill press. Denny is also the kind of guy who can see someone walking and be able to tell you what is wrong and how to fix it.”
Growing up in the United States
Denison did not grow up planning to be a prosthetist, or even an American. He was born Alfred Berkovsky in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
He migrated to Pleasantville, N.Y., in 1938. “I was 15 years old. My aunt and uncle, Matilda and Emil Denison, sponsored me. I changed my name to their name,” he said.
Denison was high school age. “But they put me in the first grade to learn more English,” he said.
He proved a quick learner. Denison speedily got promoted through the grades and graduated from high school in 1940, the year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II.
“I tried to enlist, but they would not take me because I was not a citizen,” he recalled.
After he earned his citizenship, the army drafted Denison.
“They sent me to Little Rock, Ark., with the medical corps. After basic training, they sent me to an orthopedic school in New Orleans to learn how to make braces.”
Six months later, his training complete, Denison was slated to be shipped overseas. “But they told me they needed me here to make braces for wounded soldiers coming back. So I stayed in the states,” he said.
Finding a career
In 1945, Denison ended up on the staff at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, then Walter Reed General Hospital.
“They said they had too many orthotists and they needed somebody to check the prostheses to make sure the men were going home with them in proper working order,” Denison explained. “I said, ‘That is related to bracing and sounds fine to me.’”
Denison worked in prosthetics at the hospital’s Forest Glen annex until he was discharged in 1946.
His aunt and uncle had died, and Denison decided to settle in Chicago and start an orthotics business with an army buddy.
“I went to Chicago, but he got married to a girl in Longview, Texas. I went around to different brace shops, but nobody hired me,” he said.
Denison finally landed a job with J.E. Hanger as a prosthetist. His starting salary was $25 a week. “We made everything out of wood. That was really something compared to what we do today,” he said. “Now you assemble a limb out of component parts.”
Building his craft
Before World War II, people who crafted orthotics and prosthetics were commonly called limb and brace makers. Certification came after the war.
In 1948, ABC was created to establish uniform standards for practitioners.
Qualified orthotists and prosthetists were to earn nationally recognized certification. “You could be grandfathered in as long as you got two doctors to say they knew your work,” he said.
Denison’s certification came through on Dec. 1, 1948.
Ultimately, he left Hanger and went into business for himself before switching to Scheck & Siress in 1987. “They kind of retired me 5 or 6 years ago, but I talked John Angelico to let me come in on Fridays, and so I do,” he said.
Denison is a widower. His wife died in 2001. The couple had two daughters, one of whom, Karen Coley, lives with him.
“Denny is well-respected by everybody,” Angelico said. “We plan for him to continue with us for as long as he wants.”