Mar 20

Reclaiming Thalidomide Victims’ Lives: Post-war powered arm prosthesis

Pneumatic Arm Prosthesis, 1964

Pneumatic Arm Prosthesis, 1964, on display at the Science Museum, London.
Photographed by Marina Spiteri

The 1960s witnessed ever-more complicated limb prosthetics, moving beyond the unrealistic, aesthetically unappealing wooden limbs of the early twentieth century, towards modernistic, beautifully functioning and natural-looking designs. This defined the transformation of post-war science. The pneumatically-powered prosthetic arms (pictured) were designed for Thalidomide victims, yet fit with and shaped trends in post-war science as it broadened its outreach; impacting upon post-war citizens’ lives, becoming economically useful and, of course, growing aesthetically futuristic.

Powered prostheses, first developed in Germany in 1915, were rarely used between the wars, as D. S. Childress notes in his article, ‘Historical Aspects of Powered Limb Prostheses’. However, after the Second World War, the British government’s full employment policies meant amputee ex-soldiers, of which there were thousands, needed these prosthetics in order to work, leading to increased demand for sophisticated prosthetic limbs. The need to re-integrate them into working society and radically improve their lives provided science with the opportunity to present itself as beneficial to all citizens, regardless of disability. This shaped notions that science should shift from elitism and become relevant to everyone, as embodied in medical science through the 1948 NHS Act. These technologies also economically assisted the state by contributing to overarching processes of efficiently rebuilding Britain with a healthy work-force. The particular prosthetic development photographed intrinsically shaped notions of post-war science as focused on economic viability and usefulness; its pneumatic functioning, whereby cylinders of CO₂ were compressed to cause movement, avoided the costliness of batteries but still functioned efficiently. The development of prosthetic limbs was therefore one manifestation of the post-war movement away from the destruction, dullness and deprivation of war, towards an exciting, shining technical age defined by new scientific relevance, economic viability and accessibility.

The context behind this example of powered arm prosthesis exemplifies how technologies previously employed militarily were being adapted to shape post-war citizens. The late fifties and early sixties saw over ten-thousand children born globally with physical disabilities due to thalidomide use during early pregnancy. These children faced stigmatization and inability to work in adulthood, and only science’s new civilian focus could transform their lives. This powered arm was the first to use D.C. Simpson’s innovative technique of extended physiological proprioception, meaning it was controlled by protraction-retraction, elevation-depression shoulder movements. Research scientists developed the technology at Edinburgh’s children-focused Princess Margaret Rose Hospital. From 1964, it was fitted under the clothes of sixty children from different backgrounds, explaining the child-sized proportions of this artefact. Adult-sized versions were developed as the children were followed into adulthood, as research was carried out into the developing product’s suitability. Not only the accessibility and non-elitist nature of science in the period, but also the new focus on paternalistic, government-funded scientific research, was consequently shaped through this artefact. Here, technology was providing the best possible quality of life to these otherwise disadvantaged children; centralised, post-war technology clearly now had a humanitarian role, particularly in medical science. This medical equipment also addressed scientists’ concern to maintain their revered post-war status; the Thalidomide scandal significantly undermined their authority, and their ability to efficiently right their wrongs was the profession’s attempt to reassert their reliability– in effect claiming citizens could still trust in new-age science as the gateway to the future.

As demonstrated by this pneumatic arm, post-war scientific technologies incorporated exciting, modern designs and used new materials. Pre-war prosthetics had been constructed with plain wood, often looking unrealistic and merely ‘filling the gap’ left by missing limbs. Although a far-cry from the remarkable sleekness of contemporary models, even here in 1964, we see robotic, space-age looking metal, moulded in a complex weave of wires to form the arm, and newly-developed polymers shaping the visible hand. The miraculous realism of the hand, which, amazingly, even showed the human palm’s intricate wrinkles, assisted in portraying science as transcending the basic needs of prosthetics and really focusing on the individual. Science’s new employment of plastic was genuinely revolutionising pre-war products. The hand would have been on show in the public sphere too, exhibiting this miracle of bioengineering and shaping notions of science as a life-changing phenomenon for the post-war citizen. The functionality of science and its new interest in the individual is also evident here. Designed for children, the arm was flexible, being loosely secured around the midriff, catering for rigorous play and helping post-war amputees fit into normal life. Again, this shaped views of science as entering the post-war citizen’s life for their benefit in a shiny, new way.

Prosthetic limbs do not jump out as exciting and innovative, or having shaped post-war science. Nonetheless, the employment of new materials and its use in the civilian sphere for thalidomide victims helped portray science as humanitarian, economically efficient and futuristic. Reciprocally, it helped to re-integrate the disadvantaged into society, bringing post-war science into their lives and showing its relevance to the individual.

Marina Spiteri

Second Year Undergraduate

Member of the Science, Power and Politics in the Twentieth Century module

Further Reading

[1] D. S. Childress, ‘Historical Aspects of Powered Limb Prostheses’, Clinical Prosthetics & Orthotics, Vol.9, Iss.1, (1985), pp. 2 – 13

[2] ‘Thalidomide’, Science Museum, Brought to Life, http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/themes/controversies/thalidomide.aspx

[3] M. J. Dolan, ‘Upper Limb Prosthetics’, NHS Lothian,


[4] H. H. Kessler and E. A. Kiessling, ‘The Pneumatic Arm Prosthesis’, American Journal of Nursing, Vol.  65, Iss. 6, (June 1965), pp.114 – 17