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War Amputees And American Culture

At the recommendation of my dear friend and fellow blogger, Dr. Ramona Bates, I attended a lecture entitled, “Limb Labs: Getting Amputee Soldiers Back to Work After World War I.” The lecture was held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the Walter Reed campus in Washington, DC. Both lecturers (Beth Linker and Jeffrey Reznick) did a wonderful job of transporting the audience back in time, outlining the cultural beliefs and historical context of the day. This is what I gleaned from their commentary:

Roughly 100,000 men became amputees as a result of injuries from the American Civil War (1861-1865). At the time there was no government-sponsored program to fit amputees with prosthetic limbs, so veterans were on their own. Prosthetists catered to the middle and upper classes who paid cash for their custom prostheses. Veterans of lesser means could only afford a peg leg, and some would sell photos of their stumps (like baseball cards) to support themselves. Many veterans were not effectively reintegrated into the work force after their injuries, and were considered “charity cases” by the American public.

By the time World War I began, there was significant social stigma associated with amputation. Peg legs and hook arms were synonymous with “blood thirsty villains” like Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, and Captain Hook from Peter and Wendy. As America braced for a fresh round of young amputees, the government prepared occupational rehabilitation programs in an attempt to reduce deliquency among injured veterans. An entire PR engine was developed to set expectations that veterans would become “active workers, not charity cases.” And authors like John Galsworthy, began describing the vocational reintegration of war heroes as “sacred work.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, technology had advanced to allow mass production of various goods. Factories were created to produce large quantities of standardized items like clothing, and the corresponding reduction in cost revolutionized the standard of living for many poor and middle income Americans. Not surprisingly, enterprising individuals looked for ways to mass produce costly, custom products – and be the first to market with a new, affordable option.

Seizing on the opportunity that World War I created (i.e. a new market for prosthetic limbs), a couple of orthopedic surgeons recognized an opportunity to take over the prosthetic limb market by creating a “one size fits all” solution that they could sell to the government. The government was eager to avoid the costly mistakes of the Civil War (i.e. not having a plan for reintegrating young men into the work force), but couldn’t afford the prosthetist’s fee of $200 per custom prosthetic limb. The “E-Z leg” was born, and at a cost of only $20 per prosthesis, it seemed like a steal.

The E-Z leg solved a few problems for the government – 1) it allowed injured veterans to walk off the ships (instead of being carried on stretchers) that brought them home from Europe, thus minimizing the public appearance of the toll of war 2) it allowed them to offer cosmetically appealing prostheses, rather than peg legs, to amputees 3) it increased the vocational rehabilitation potential of veterans.

Of course, the “E-Z leg” didn’t have the best marketing ring to it, so it was rebranded the “liberty leg” and hailed as a triumph of modern technology. In reality, though, it wasn’t much of a functional improvement over a peg leg. In prosthetic design, a “one size fits all” approach ensures that no one gets a truly good custom fit. But psychologically, the veterans were pleased to have a cosmetically appealing limb, and most had no idea how much better a custom limb could be. The public was satisfied by the government’s generosity, not realizing that the government had actually budgeted $75/amputee at the beginning of the war. What happened to the $55 savings? We’ll never know.

One thing’s for sure, the orthopedist owners of E-Z leg made out like bandits. John Galsworthy became so disillusioned with his push for “sacred work” that he wrote, “Empty promises and rhetoric of heroism… The war killed the self-importance, faith and idealism in me.” He never spoke of vocational rehabilitation for war veterans again.


As I watched the NBC nightly news yesterday, I noted an interview with a young Marine recovering from bilateral leg amputations (caused by an IED explosion in Iraq) at Walter Reed. When asked if he was worried about walking again he simply replied, “I don’t worry about that. With the artificial legs they have these days, I’ll probably be better than ever.”

And I thought to myself, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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One Response to “War Amputees And American Culture”

  1. rlbates says:

    Very nice, Val.  Wish I could have attended it with you. 

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