Amputations accounted for roughly three-quarters of all battlefield surgeries during the Civil War, which meant that artificial limbs were much in demand after the bitter conflict’s end. Captain Ahab-style wooden stumps were an easy fix, but they tended to severely curtail a man’s productivity. Fortunately for the shattered nation, then, a Massachusetts linguistics professor named George B. Jewett enjoyed dabbling in prosthetics whenever he had a spare moment. His great innovation, patented just months after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox, was a novel artificial leg that featured something truly remarkable: a self-oiling mechanism, which allowed the limb to maintain maximum flexibility despite inclement weather or owner neglect.
Jewett’s company, headquartered at the corner of Park and Tremont Streets in Boston, did a brisk business with the Union’s former enemies, as states below the Mason-Dixon line launched public programs to supply veterans with artificial legs. North Carolina led the way, though some recipients of the state’s largesse were careful not to rely too heavily on their Jewetts:
It became the first of the former Confederate states to offer artificial limbs to amputees. The General Assembly passed a resolution in February 1866 to provide artificial legs, or an equivalent sum of money (seventy dollars) to amputees who could not use them. Because artificial arms were not considered very functional, the state did not offer them, or equivalent money (fifty dollars), until 1867. While North Carolina operated its artificial limbs program, 1,550 Confederate veterans contacted the government for help.
One Tar Heel veteran, Robert Alexander Hanna, had enlisted in the Confederate army on July 1, 1861. Two years later at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Hanna suffered wounds in the head and the left leg, just above the ankle joint. He suffered for about a month, with the wound oozing pus, before an amputation was done. After the war, Hanna received a wooden Jewett’s Patent Leg from the state in January 1867. According to family members, he saved that leg for special occasions, having made other artificial limbs to help him do his farmwork. (One homemade leg had a bull’s hoof for a foot.) The special care helped the Jewett’s Patent Leg last. When Hanna died in 1917 at about eighty-five years old, he had had the artificial leg for fifty years.
I’d be curious to know whether Jewett’s invention had any influence on the celebrated Jaipur foot, another prosthetic innovation that has done wonders for economic development.