Pair of carbon dioxide powered prosthetic/artificial arms for a young child living with upper limb thalidomide impairments, fitted with pat-a-cake hands, made by Steeper, 1963
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. These arms are fitted with carbon dioxide canisters to allow the arms to move and have more functionality. It has pat-a-cake hands, so called because the hands could be clapped together along with a nursery rhyme. Bending forwards opens the rear valve and brings the hands together and the reverse movement causes the front valve to operate and the hands to part. It was felt this was all the hands were useful for. The carbon dioxide gas often made a hissing noise, and the system was far from fool proof. When the gas built up, it could then be released in a rush causing the arm to move suddenly and in unexpected ways. At mealtimes, this could send food flying across the room. Gas-powered arms like these were 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.
- Object Number:
overall (arms each): 320 mm x 40 mm x 40 mm,
overall (body): 170 mm x 310 mm x 140 mm, .87kg
- furnishing and equipment
- tools & equipment
- prosthetic limb
- Richmond Twickenham and Roehampton Healthcare NHS Trust