Relying on prosthetics

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Jean Thilmany

Last summer, South African runner Oscar Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to race in the Olympic games. In November, Mechanical Engineering magazine’s Input/Output section will feature C.J. Howard, a Californian who climbs mountains with the help of a specially designed climbing prosthetic that fits his lower leg.

This is additional proof that prosthetic limb design continues to push the bounds of technological prowess with new materials, robotics, and manufacturing methods.

As amazing as today’s advances are, it is startling to realize how long humans have relied on prosthetic limbs. Recently, Jacky Finch, a biomedical Egyptology researcher at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England, found that artificial toes discovered on the foot of an Egyptian mummy are likely to be the world’s first prosthetic body parts.

The three-part wood and leather toe, dating before 600 B.C., had been found on a female mummy buried near Luxor, in Egypt. I could have been used as practical tools to help their owners to walk, Finch said.

All of which has put me in mind to re-read Poster Child, a wonderful memoir by Emily Rapp, about the leg prosthetic she now wears following an operation at the age of four. Rapp detailed the pain (both physical and psychological) of wearing the prosthetic and the need for it to be constantly re-fitted and changed as technology advanced. No matter the technology, the leg often chaffed and left wounds at the site where it attached.

That book was an eye opener for me. For behind the long-time human use of prosthetic limbs, behind the marvels that continue within the field today, prosthetics are still worn by humans who struggle with them and with their appearance. And that, likely, is something not about to change.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

October 2012

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