It’s 2017, and Zion Harvey  has been living with the hands of another child for more than two years. Zion’s bilateral hand transplant has allowed him to grasp a cup, hold a bat, and do many things that we often take for granted . After overcoming his body’s eighth rejection  of his new hands, his success story is just one example of how far limb replacement has come. However, there are still many complications that come with biological transplants, such as a lack of suitable donors and transplant rejection- both of which have yet to be resolved. Luckily, modern technology has given rise to a new generation of prosthetics that are arguably superior to biological transplants, especially since they lack these problematic shortcomings as a result of years of advancements in the field of prosthetic science

With modern day prosthetics it is clear that we have come a long way since the time of wooden limbs – but where did this innovation really start? Like many great innovations, the oldest known prosthetic limb can be traced back to ancient Egypt in the year 1500 BC.  This prosthetic, found in Cairo, was none other than a metal toe which appeared to be relatively anatomically correct and provided balance to the person who was once equipped with it .

This finding contrasts the current understanding of how prosthetics were viewed spiritually, as it was found that these replacements would often be buried, burnt, and relocated after a wearer’s death to aid the afterlife transition, preventing negative consequences.

From then on, the evolution of prosthetics was one of war, villains, and ingenious engineering. The dark ages showed very little advancement in this field, with the peg-leg and hook-hand serving as the standard for the wealthy,  while the poor could not afford the same privilege. The hook-hand, although able to literally hook things, served more of an aesthetic purpose than a practical one.

It wasn’t until 1508, when Gotz von Berlichingen – a man known for kidnapping nobles- lost his right hand in battle, that the long standing metal and wood prosthetics were revamped. Berlichingen created a more practical hand, which functioned on a system of springs, releases, and offered adjustable positions.

But, it wasn’t until amputations became standardized that modern-day prosthetics became more widespread in use. Ambroise Paré,  was one of the first innovators of the modern-day prosthetic, having created a fake above-knee leg in 1536. The leg contained adjustable harnesses, knee-lock control and other features we see in today’s prosthetics. From there on, prosthetics continued to be tweaked, either through the use of different materials, or the addition of new features.

So what has changed since then? Firstly, new technology has allowed the innovations of many to be shared and built upon. Second, prosthetics are no longer just about recovering mobility/dexterity. Instead, the focus has now shifted to creating limbs that can enhance Paralympians’ performance,  are more suitable for different environments, and are customizable with different arm sizes and colours.

U.S. Paralympian April Holmes training with prosthetic leg type often seen in runners.

While efforts are being put into achieving/regaining everyday ability, many innovators are thinking beyond that – to redefine prosthetics as an enhancement rather than a replacement. In fact, scientists and engineers are looking into how technology can be integrated into every aspect of our lives to increase our lifespans and ease the way we interact with the world around us. By replacing organs (such as a pancreas for diabetics ) with prosthetics, millions of lives are not only being saved, but improved as well. Additionally, companies are looking into replacing electronics such as phones and computers with technology that is incorporated into our arms  or brains.  While this may seem far into the future, one should keep in mind that the same was said about the cordless telephones just over 60 years ago .

As we continue to move forward in an increasingly technological world that holds great promise for people with and without disabilities, it’s important to recognize the efforts of those who gave an arm and a leg, so that others could have theirs.

By Sloane Kowal

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.