Lives & Limbs – Science Fiction

Welcome back. Whether you’re a licensed O&P practitioner, an amputee fortunate enough to have a state-of-the-art prosthesis, or even just an industry outsider who’s amazed at the level of technological innovation that goes into creating today’s prosthetic devices, it’s hard not to be amazed by the sophisticated solutions available to amputees. As my series inspired by Nicole Ver Kuilen‘s visit continues, I’d like to keep the sci-fi theme that I started on Friday rolling just a bit longer. Enjoy.

World War I & The Rise of the Bionic Men

The thing that made WWI so incredibly unique was the sheer scale of it. When the guns fell silent and the soldiers started returning home in 1919, the world’s most powerful nations found themselves facing a new crisis on the home front. They had millions of newly disabled veterans to care for, and they were going to have to do it while their economies were in complete shambles. To make matters worse, the war had taken millions of able-bodied young men out of the workforce, and many feared that this would make the process of rebuilding slow and painful due to a massive loss in productivity. No matter which side of the war they’d been on, each of the belligerents came to the same conclusion:

If they were going to avoid going broke, they needed to find a way to return their veteran amputees to the workforce. Fast.

Fortunately, these brave men and women were extraordinarily willing to put their shoulders to the wheel…even if those shoulders were no longer always made of flesh and bone. Douglas C. McMurtrie of the American Red Cross, French engineer Jules Amar, and German innovator Georg Schlesinger were at the forefront of a revolution in prosthetic design where form was cast aside entirely in favor of functionality. Their innovative thinking ultimately made prosthetic limbs cheap and easy to mass-produce while also providing maximum utility to the amputees that would be expected to use them.

Schlesinger was especially excited about the potential of prosthetics, and went so far as to advocate for the idea that well-designed prosthetic devices could enhance the abilities of an amputee and give them a powerful advantage in the workplace. This idea got a lot of people talking about whether science could (or should) be used to create race of bionic “super men.” We never quite got around to turning everyone into cyborgs after the war, but we did see an enormous shift in the prosthetics industry from cosmetic limbs meant to fill space and hide “deformity” to the mass production of practical, functional limbs.

This change allowed millions of injured soldiers to return to work and, in many cases, completely shatter expectations for what they could do. No longer looked upon as cripples in need of government protection and assistance, amputees equipped with prosthetic devices were seen as being more than capable of contributing to society. This new, elevated status for amputees combined with their sheer numbers after the war went a long way toward reducing and even eliminating the social stigma that came with missing a limb.

Scotty’s Missing Middle Finger

Space: The Final Frontier…

Gene Roddenberry captured the imagination of millions of Americans when he brought Star Trek to the airwaves in 1966. Captain James T. Kirk had command of the Enterpise, but it was his loyal Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott, that kept the ship flying through all of its crazy adventures. Being the Chief Engineer on a starship wasn’t easy. Scotty had to perform delicate repairs on extremely complex machinery under enormous pressure, often while the ship was being shot at by the villains of the week. One can only imagine that he had to have the kind of manual dexterity that would make a bomb-squad technician jealous…a quality he prided himself on despite the fact that he was missing the middle finger on his right hand.

You see, prior to being cast as Scotty, Canadian actor James Doohan served with the 14th Field Artillery Regiment of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division during the Second World War. After storming the beaches of Normandy with his unit, he ended up being shot by friendly fire while moving between command posts the night after the battle. Doohan took four in the leg, one in the chest, and one through his middle finger, which had to be amputated. This may seem like a relatively small injury compared to some of the others that I’ve talked about in this series, but you have to remember that Hollywood is a pretty superficial place today. It was even worse in the 1960s. There weren’t a lot of casting calls going out in Tinsel Town for people who were missing body parts.

Obviously, Star Trek was an enormous success. My great grandchildren will probably be watching some version of it long after I’m dead. James Doohan’s part on the show helped open the door for other amputees to try their hand at acting…no pun intended…and also inspired a generation of kids to go into engineering. His character was cited by so many engineering students as their reason for choosing the profession that he was given an honorary doctorate in the subject to go with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Doohan passed away in 2005, but his legacy of inspiring young amputees, engineers, and astronauts will live on forever.

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