Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics
These essays are not about "cyborgs or bionic beings," nor do they explain prostheses as "merely metaphors" (p. 1). Rather, by locating such devices within the history of material culture, they offer historical perspectives on prostheses "as social objects with a complex set of meanings in the daily lives of people" (p. 2). Interweaving theory with history, sociocultural forces with individual agency, they explore the social construction of technology without losing sight of the body's materiality or simplistically reducing technology to oppressive instrumentation. Katherine Ott's historiographical introduction highlights important themes in prosthetics history, providing an interpretive framework for the essays that follow.
Prosthetics history bridges the histories of rehabilitation medicine, engineering, and modern manufacturing. Influenced by a capitalist consumer aesthetic, prosthetic design evolved from rough-hewn wooden limbs to cosmetically pleasing and increasingly functional ones. Yet, while commercial manufacturing and the bureaucratic welfare state shaped prosthet ics, individuals also made their own choices. Kirsten Gardner shows that into the 1970s women not only often made their own postmastectomy [End Page 899] breast prostheses, but medical professionals helped them learn how to do it. Three other essays also trace technical, manufacturing, and marketing developments: Ott on artificial eyes, Elizabeth Haiken on cosmetic prosthetics, and Alex Faulkner on artificial hips. Steven Kurzman offers an ethnographic account of how prosthetists and patients communicate about the physical feel of prostheses.
Like all "disabilities," amputation is not just a medical condition, but a social status. Prostheses have often served to restore "normalcy." Nineteenth-century prosthetics manufacturers marketed their products to bourgeois consumers by promising to rescue them from loathsome appearance, ostensible dependency, pity, stigma, and social exclusion. Similarly, as with all "disability," gender has been central to prosthetics history. Because warfare and workplace accidents most frequently injured males, amputation was regarded as threatening manhood, while prostheses were perceived and promoted as restoring masculinity. Elspeth Brown explains that Frank and Lillian Gilbreth promoted their time-and-motion studies partly by criticizing World War I veterans' rehabilitation as undermining manhood and by promising to solve "the problem of the crippled soldier" (p. 264) by training them for manly occupations. David Serlin recounts the aggressively heterosexual remasculinization agenda for rehabilitating amputee World War II veterans, linking it to larger cold war-era anxieties about masculinity and national security.
As several essays indicate, definitions of disability, public treatment of disabled individuals, and the relation of prosthetics to those matters were important in modern state formation. Ott and Serlin describe the uses of amputation and prostheses as symbols of patriotic sacrifice during and after the Civil War and World War II. Jennifer Davis McDaid reports the Virginia legislature's efforts to provide Confederate veterans with artificial limbs, a major concern of other postbellum southern legislatures that paralleled Congress's concern for disabled Union veterans. McDaid's and Serlin's essays, and Heather Perry's examinations of the "re-arming" of amputee German veterans of World War I, all recount that modern states made returning disabled men to productive paid employment a prime objective. That goal stemmed from the assumption that disabled veterans would inevitably fall into unmanly dependency, burdening their families, society, and the state. Serlin and Perry also show that these concerns were central to modern medical rehabilitation's ideology and program.
Class and culture also helped shape "disability." Governmental and medical rehabilitative projects to outfit amputee German veterans with artificial limbs aimed to restore their prewar social status, thus reinforcing the traditional social hierarchy. Stephen Mihm demonstrates that nineteenth-century marketing of artificial limbs that concealed disability reflected middle-class American concerns about social respectability and socioeconomic opportunities, while prosthetics advertising aimed at working-class [End Page 900] men emphasized the devices' utility. Raman Srinivasan shows that the Jaipur foot was not only a prosthesis but a distinctly Indian cultural approach to rehabilitation. David Waldstreicher uses Benjamin Franklin's invention of his "long arm" as a springboard to examine limbs as political metaphors in Revolutionary America.
These studies point toward areas of future research. The main focus has been male amputees. We need to know about not only female amputees but prostheses other than artificial limbs, such as breasts, dentures, ears, larynxes, noses, and penile prostheses. And we need work on the place of race, ethnicity, and region. Still, taken together, these essays are valuable first forays into the history of prosthetics.
Dr. Longmore is professor of history and director of the institute on disability at San Francisco State University.