World War I to the age of the cyborg: the surprising history of prosthetic limbs

The ConversationPeople have long dreamed of being smarter, stronger, faster. But now it seems that cutting edge technologies are out there, or in development, that might enable us truly to enhance our cognitive and physical capabilities. At the Paralympics, sprinters will be bounding down the tracks on running blades. Students are taking “smart drugs” and using cognitive enhancement devices in order to achieve better academic performance.

These recent advances in science and technology have led to much discussion on the ethics of human enhancement, giving the impression that this is an era-defining moment, one in which the very definition of what it is to be “human” is being challenged. But such concerns over human enhancement are not new. Consider, for instance, the design and mass production of prosthetic limbs 100 years ago.

As thousands of soldiers returned from World War I with severe physical disabilities, engineers, physicians and politicians had to figure out how to enable the ex-combatants to return to the workforce. Germany and France did so via the mass production and large-scale distribution of prosthetic limbs. The public discussion on the benefits of mass production of prosthetic limbs was so intense in Europe, and the sight of men with prosthetic limbs so ubiquitous, that some historians speak of the emergence of a symbolic figure during the interwar years: “homo prostheticus”. Many people were confident that a new generation of prosthetic limbs would enable amputees to resume their working lives, and perhaps even make them more productive than before.

‘Reconstructing the Crippled Soldier’ McMurtrie, 1918.

A booklet published by the Red Cross in 1918, aptly entitled Reconstructing the Crippled Soldier, shows several pictures of amputees sporting their tool-like prosthetic limbs. Its author is optimistic, declaring: “There are no more cripples!” Another article on the new approach to prostheses, published in a Brazilian newspaper in 1918, went as far as to suggest that thanks to the scientific achievements of the modern age a healthy man could be turned into a “super-homem” – superman.

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