Pair of artificial/prosthetic arms for a child living with thalidomide impairments, 1964

Made:
1964 in Roehampton
maker:
Hugh Steeper
Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia). Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia). Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia). Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia). Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia). Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia). Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).

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Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of CO2 gas powered prostheses for a Thalidomide affected child with complete absence of upper limbs (amelia).
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Pair of carbon dioxide powered prosthetic/artificial arms for a child living with upper limb thalidomide impairments, fitted with split hooks, made by Steeper, 1964

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 valves for the carbon dioxide sit at the shoulders and are activated by moving the shoulders. The carbon dioxide powers both split hooks and a rotation unit in the right wrist. Friction joints at the shoulder and the elbow also mean the arms can also be moved into positions. The elbows can be bent using a cord that runs from each elbow to a pulley and then to the waist belt. This means the whole body is used to operate the prosthetics. However, the 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.

Details

Category:
Orthopaedics
Object Number:
1999-579
Materials:
fibreglass, metal and plastic
type:
thalidomide
taxonomy:
  • furnishing and equipment
  • tools & equipment
  • prosthesis
  • artificial limb
  • furnishing and equipment
  • tools & equipment
  • prosthesis
  • prosthetic limb
  • furnishing and equipment
  • tools & equipment
  • prosthesis
  • artificial limb
credit:
Richmond Twickenham and Roehampton Healthcare NHS Trust