Pair of prosthetic/artificial legs, Roehampton, England, 1977

Made:
1977 in Bethesda
maker:
Hanger Orthopaedic Group, Inc
Pair of extension prostheses for a boy with extremely short legs (phocomelia) due to Thalidomide. Blocked leather

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Pair of extension prostheses for a boy with extremely short legs (phocomelia) due to Thalidomide. Blocked leather
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of prosthetic/artificial legs, with rigid joints and flat black leather imitation shoe covering and imitation socks, for a child living with thalidomide impairments, including limb difference, made by Hanger, United States, 1977.

Just as each person’s experience of living with thalidomide impairments is different, so is their experience with prosthetic or artificial limbs. This might be due to the attitudes of their families and medical professionals they met. Fittings often did not take into account what children could do with the limbs they had.

It is unknown who these limbs were made for. The legs were attached to the child’s hips using the padded straps. The leather sockets are open-ended to allow the child’s shortened legs to hang free. They would have been made to fit the child, based on a series of plaster casts taken from their body. This part of the process was very uncomfortable for most and could involve them being suspended in the air whilst the plaster dried. The flat soles were designed to help with balance but would have been very difficult to walk in. Bulky, heavy, painful to wear and hard to use, many felt they had less independence whilst wearing the prosthetic limbs than learning to adapt without them. Few have continued to use prosthetic limbs into adulthood.

Prosthetic or artificial limbs were in part meant to act as reparations for the impairments that thalidomide had caused. They were frequently used as a way of visually “normalising” the bodies of people living with thalidomide impairments. Many question who these supposed improvements were really meant to help. Some children underwent operations to make the prosthetic limbs fit better which could include amputations. Children had little input into these decisions and the trauma of some of these medical interventions is still felt today, both emotionally and physically.

Thalidomide was a compound found in drugs prescribed to people in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although today it is associated primarily as a treatment for pregnancy related nausea, it was also prescribed to anyone experiencing symptoms of colds, flu, headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. Thalidomide causes nerve damage in the hands and feet of adults, but when taken in early pregnancy it causes impairments such as limb difference, sight loss, hearing loss, facial paralysis, and impact to internal organs. One tablet is enough to cause significant impairments. Researchers later identified that there was a link between the impairment a person is living with, and which day of the pregnancy thalidomide was taken. UK distributors withdrew the drug in 1961 and a government warning was issued in May 1962.

Details

Category:
Orthopaedics
Object Number:
1999-508
Materials:
leather, plastic and textile
type:
thalidomide
taxonomy:
  • furnishing and equipment
  • tools & equipment
  • prosthesis
  • artificial limb
  • furnishing and equipment
  • tools & equipment
  • prosthesis
  • prosthetic limb
credit:
Richmond Twickenham and Roehampton Healthcare NHS Trust