Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Innovation in health and social care: social and historical
Innovation in health and social care: social and historical

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.1 Prosthetics: function and identity

To appreciate how far innovation has come, it is important to explore early attempts to improve lives around the world. Looking at prosthetics is one way of exploring innovation in a health context, from its primitive beginnings with the fixed-position foot to the present day’s highly sophisticated contemporary designs like the computerised leg (Norton, 2007).

Prosthetics aren’t just about physical functioning. They can provide a way for people to participate in activities that would otherwise be difficult, helping to maintain aspects of the person’s identity.

Innovation in this field can be found as far back as the Ancient Egyptians. A 3,000-year-old mummy with a prosthetic wooden big toe with attachment straps, named the Cario Toe, was an extraordinary find. Not only was the prosthesis designed for comfort, but the toe could even flex (MacDonald, 2017). The Egyptian toe prosthesis was important, because it was developed to retain not only functionality but also identity, as wearing sandals was a significant part of the cultural life of an Egyptian.

Even before this though, ancient discoveries of replacement body parts are discussed in the classical literature of many cultures. For example, the mythical Greek Pelops had an ivory shoulder, animal teeth used to replace human teeth feature prominently among Etruscan archaeological finds, and Herodotus wrote about a Persian seer who in 424 BC evaded execution by amputating his own foot and using a wooden filler to escape to the next town 30 miles away (Norton, 2007).

Custom-built prosthetics made from wood, metal and leather and controlled by cables and gears have been found in France and Switzerland dating from the late fifteenth century. Some cable-controlled hands were so sophisticated they could hold a fork. The designs of these objects were used to develop prosthetics after each of the World Wars (MacDonald, 2017).

Veterans from the Second World War were dissatisfied with what they felt was the lack of sophistication of devices, which prompted governments to team up with product developers to invest in improving the function of prosthetic devices. This led to the development of modern prostheses. Contemporary designs are now made of plastic, aluminium and, with the use of computer chips, are much more personalised, enabling amputees to enjoy greater quality of life (Norton, 2007).

Present-day scientists are now working on prosthetics which can be controlled by the brain. Ultimately, it could mean that losing a limb can be a temporary loss because due to increasing sophistication, personal identity can be retained as far as is possible, thereby enabling people to live life to the fullest with either a prosthesis or, one day, a regrown limb. Scientists are also making advances in the field of reversing the loss of other functioning parts such as eyesight through stem cell therapy.

The focus of the next section explores advancements in innovation in Scotland.