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Museum Tells Story of Early Prostheses

World War I vintage artificial arms at the Science Museum in London illustrate the rigid class structure of early 20th century British society.

Under glass casing at the “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care” exhibition, are a lifelike officer’s arm and a crude worker’s arm. Both are part of a special World War I centennial commemoration.

Of coveted quality

The artificial arms and other relics are arranged to highlight innovations in medicine that resulted from the global conflict, which claimed more than 38 million military and civilian lives. Small signs with the relics explain their use. “Then, as now, simple was often better. Prostheses that attempted to mimic the natural hand and arm had limited functionality in practice and could prove frustrating to the men who had also been given limited training in their use,” one sign read.

The officer’s arm is made of lightweight metal and painted to resemble white skin. The elbow, wrist and fingers are jointed, providing at least some level of movement.

“Made to measure in the [United States of America] by the Carnes Artificial Limb Company, then shipped back across the wartime Atlantic, these arms were highly coveted,” another sign reads. “However, only officers – able to top up a set allowance – could generally afford them.”

Disparity in features

William T. Carnes founded his pioneering firm in Kansas City, Mo. in 1910. The war ended in German defeat in 1918.

“We manufacture the only artificial arm in the world that you can do all kinds of work with,” company advertising stated.

The limb on display is reportedly a Carnes model patented in 1912. The appliance featured a single interior “operating cord” and spring mechanism that could flex the elbow joint and open and close the fingers, according to United States Patent and Trademark Office specifications.

While the officer’s arm was not suitable for hard work, the worker’s arm was. Apparently of a British manufacturer, the prosthesis, though sturdy, looks nothing like a real limb. Made of wood, metal and steel, it features a moveable elbow joint but has a hooked hand.

“This simple prosthesis was intended for an agricultural worker,” its sign read. “Devoid of complexities and armed with a double hook-like appliance, it was designed specifically for manual labour.”

The obvious disparity between officer’s and worker’s limbs ultimately raised questions in Britain’s parliament. Members of Britain’s budding, working-class Labour Party were particularly critical of the double-standard designs.

Ironically, “wearers found the Carnes arm difficult to master and many ended up in the backs of cupboards — never to be worn again,” a sign noted.

Prosthetic relics and devices on display at the Science Museum in London.
Prosthetic relics and devices on display at the Science Museum in London.

Image: Science Museum, London.

Early prosthetic devices at the Science Museum in London.
Early prosthetic devices at the Science Museum in London.

Image: Science Museum, London.

Post-war and employment

All told, 41,000 British amputees survived the war, according to the Imperial College, London. Thousands more French, American, Italian and other Allied soldiers and their German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish enemies came home without arms and legs.

On both sides, most men who lost limbs were farmers or workers, according to a museum sign. “Despite the opportunities to retrain for other work, many amputees wanted to go back to their old jobs.”

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