Editor’s note: This is the first article in a three-part series on the history of Hanger Inc.
James Edward Hanger lost his leg to a cannonball in the Civil War. But the near-fatal wound spurred the Virginia teenager to invent his own artificial limb and start one of the world’s leading O&P firms.
Today, Hanger Inc. is a billion-dollar-plus, publicly traded corporation with more than 4,500 employees. Hanger operates nine companies that specialize in two businesses – patient care and products and services.
Left for dead, then found
The founder, who was born and reared near Churchville, Va., apparently knew nothing about prosthetics before he fashioned a flexible wooden leg from barrel staves and metal bits, strapped it on himself and proved the device’s worth by walking down a flight of stairs to the astonishment of his parents. James Edward Hanger was just 18 years old.
In the spring of 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Hanger was away at Washington College – now Washington and Lee University – in Lexington, Va. Caught up in the martial spirit on campus, the sophomore engineering student joined the college’s Confederate company but soon left.
Image: Hanger Inc.
“My mother was not willing for me to remain in this company and requested that I come home and said if I was determined to go into the Army, I might go in the Churchville Cavalry in which I had two brothers,” he recalled in 1914, according to Hanger: 150 Years of Empowering Human Potential, a book written by Bob Parks and printed in 2012 as part of the corporation’s sesquicentennial observance.
The Churchville Cavalry was a company of horsemen who became part of the 14th Virginia Cavalry. Organized in 1862, the regiment fought in a number of skirmishes and battles, including the battle of Gettysburg, Pa., in 1863.
Meanwhile, when Hanger got home, he discovered the Churchville company had ridden off to Philippi, Va. – now West Virginia – 125 miles away. Undaunted, the would-be horse soldier walked all the way, arriving on June 1. Expecting to see his siblings, Hanger discovered that the troopers were absent temporarily in a nearby town, Parks wrote.
So Hanger bedded down in the company’s stable-barracks and waited for his future comrades-in-arms to return. On June 3, about 3,000 soldiers showed up – but wearing blue uniforms.
The Union surprise attack went down in history as the first land battle of the Civil War, though the Philippi fight was more of a big skirmish. In any event, the Union troops routed Philippi’s 800 mostly untrained Confederate defenders, who fled after offering little resistance.
Hanger was one of the first casualties. The third shot the Union fired – a solid iron cannonball – hit the ground, bounced, crashed into the stable and careened into Hanger’s left leg, according to Parks.
Unable to move, the badly hurt teen lay helpless for 4 hours. Hanger probably would have died had a group of Union soldiers not discovered him. They summoned Dr. James Robinson, the regimental surgeon of the 16th Ohio Infantry.
While most of the victorious Union troops were little more than raw recruits, Robinson was a veteran practitioner of battlefield medicine. He had been an army surgeon in the Mexican-American War.
Robinson ordered the soldiers who found Hanger to get him a makeshift operating table. They produced a barn door.
No sooner was Hanger laid out than Robinson removed his shattered limb. Even if he had not invented a famous artificial leg and started a pioneering O&P firm, Hanger would have gone down in history. He was apparently the first Civil War amputee on either side.
Hanger recovered in a nearby house and a temporary Union army hospital. “I cannot look back upon those days in the hospital without a shudder,” Parks quoted Hanger.
“No one can know what such a loss means unless he has suffered a similar catastrophe. In the twinkling of an eye, life’s fondest hopes seemed dead. I was the prey of despair.”
An invention built from necessity
The Union army provided Hanger with a crude prosthesis – a straight piece of wood that could neither bend nor flex.
“It likely made walking across a floor noisy and awkward,” Parks wrote.
Hanger remained an Union captive until August 1861, when he was released in a prisoner-of-war exchange. His army career, such as it was, was finished. Hanger went home to his parents.
According to the story, he holed up in his second-floor room. Hanger would ask his mother to leave at his door food and, oddly, barrel staves and pieces of metal, Parks wrote.
The building materials must have mystified his parents. They probably thought their son’s self-sequestration was rooted in his physical and emotional suffering. But in November 1861, he emerged wearing “a brand-new prototype leg, surprising his parents with a smooth, silent walking motion,” Parks wrote.
He quoted from an 1864 edition of the Staunton, Va., Spectator: “Mr. Hanger, being possessed of good mechanical ingenuity, and too patriotic to be dependent upon the Yankees for an artificial leg, invented by his own genius, and manufactured by his own skill, an artificial leg, by which he is enabled to walk with ease.”
Thus was born the storied “Hanger Limb.”
“Today I am thankful for what seemed then to me nothing but a blunder of fate, but which was to prove instead a great opportunity,” Hanger later said.
Better than the Palmer
The Virginia youth’s amazing innovation did not go unnoticed or unrewarded. In 1863, he earned two patents from the Confederate government. He was also commissioned to develop artificial limbs for other amputee veterans.
The exact nature of the patents is not known because Confederate troops burned the patent office in April 1865. But it is possible to guess at Hanger’s design by reading a Feb. 16, 1864, letter he sent to Confederate surgeon William Carrington, secretary of the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers, Parks explained.
Hanger knew he needed Carrington’s blessing because the association was responsible for raising money and for providing artificial limbs for wounded soldiers. Hanger began his plea by proclaiming that his prosthesis was better than the “Palmer leg,” an artificial limb patented in 1846 by inventor Benjamin Franklin Palmer of New Hampshire.
Parks explained: “Leg designs with hinges at the knee and ankle dated back to the Napoleonic wars, but the ‘Palmer leg’ was a well-known standard design. Where Palmer used hinges in the center of the knee and ankle, Hanger pointed out that his knee hinge was set back a half inch, preventing the leg from accidentally flexing backward when you placed weight on it. A leg that did not slide backward looked more natural and ‘renders it much easier to the wearer,’ noted Hanger.”
A battle of materials
Next, Hanger plunged into the ongoing debate among limb makers: how to successfully reproduce the natural action of muscles and ligaments. Inventors tried special levers, catgut pulleys and steel springs with uneven results. The mechanical legs often broke and were difficult to maintain, “prompting some wearers to carry an oilcan around with them,” Parks wrote.
One inventor, New Yorker A.A. Marks – later to become Hanger’s main business competitor – dismissively wrote in 1863, “The ordinary construction of artificial limbs involves the use of springs, joints, pivots …to such an extent that they are not only very costly, but also very liable to get out of order by use.”
Parks said Marks was partial to rubber.
“He made the entire foot and parts of the leg out of natural rubber, a relatively new and coveted material from South America,” the author added. “The A.A. Marks rubber foot was certainly straightforward, though not the most lifelike.”
Hanger assured Carrington that his mechanical leg would not wear out, rust or break because it “used levers and small rubber bumpers inside the leg,” Parks wrote. “When you walked on it, the prosthetic ankle flexed and then was bounced gently back into place by the compression of the rubber. Likewise, when the knee flexed, it bounced back into place by a bumper placed higher up.”
Hanger added that because the little rubber pads operated by compression, the spring system was not weakened “by long and continued use.”
Parks wrote, “Finally, Hanger’s pitch to Carrington noted that a cord inside the leg slackened when the knee bent, allowing a spring to automatically raise the toes. The mechanism accomplished what biomechanists would now call “toe dorsiflexion during swing phase.’”
Parks B. Hanger: 150 Years of Empowering Human Potential. New York: Melcher Media, 2012.