Thursday, January 24, 2013

Civil War Arms of a Different Sort

     It seems appropriate after posting about amputations to post next about some of the prosthetics used by the soldiers after the amputations.  Since I’ve already posted about a prosthetic leg here, I will focus on a prosthetic arm this time.
Here is the only prosthetic arm in the museum’s collection. It was manufactured by Marvin Lincoln of Malden, Massachusetts. It is made of maple wood and features a lockable elbow joint, an opposable controlled thumb, a replaceable hand, and ventilation holes for the elbow stump.

     Though prosthetic limbs were around long before the Civil War, the sheer number of amputees produced by the war, coupled with the fact that the Union veterans who were amputees were provided federal government funds to purchase prosthetics, spurred many advances in the field of prosthetics.  (Confederate veterans had to request prosthetics from their home states.)  Marvin Lincoln was one of the manufacturers who supplied these artificial limbs.  An arm like the one pictured above sold for $50, which was also the amount that the government supplied for a veteran to purchase a prosthetic arm.

This photo from the Library of Congress shows an unidentified soldier from Company G, 147th New York Infantry Regiment, with two amputated arms. Had he not been fitted for prosthetic arms yet, or did he choose not to wear them for the photo?

This is a copy of Lincoln’s patent for his artificial arm, dated August 11, 1863, which diagrams the parts of his arm. 

     In the patent letter which accompanied the above diagram, Lincoln states, “To flex the arm, it is only necessary to give the upper arm a quick jerking motion, which throws up the forearm, causing the latch-spring and catch to operate as to lock it in position.  When thus bent, the arm is generally thrown across and against the breast, assuming then an easy and graceful position, and it may also be used to carry pieces of clothing or other bundles….having in this way a capability not possessed by any other arm now made…. 
I do not give to all the fingers an extended position….but that while making the two forefingers nearly straight, so that they will have the proper position to enable them to act in conjunction with the spring-thumb to hold or firmly grasp any article between them, and I give the outer fingers a hooking form….  This manner of construction enables me to impart to the hand not only a graceful and ornamental form, but to give it also a capacity to carry articles like baskets, bags, &c., by hooking them onto the fingers.”
   Let’s take a look at some of the details on this arm.

This view shows what remains of the leather strap which held the arm in place, the elbow joint, and the ventilation holes.


Here is a close-up of the carved hand. Unfortunately, the fingertips have all been broken. Note the details Lincoln included to make the arm look more realistic though – the nail bed on the thumb, and the flesh-colored paint on the arm. The small screw on the wrist was the mechanism used to remove the hand. It could be replaced by a hook or other implement if the wearer desired!

This label is located on the back of the forearm and not only identifies the maker of the arm, but also doubles as the button for the locking mechanism for the elbow.

     In an advertising pamphlet written by Marvin Lincoln just after the war, his artificial arms are described as being sturdy enough to handle being used in everyday life, while still being “artistic and beautiful” in appearance.  He also claimed that these arms gave their wearers, “the consciousness that what he uses to conceal his loss, and to assist him in his labors and pleasures, is no disgusting appendage, but, on the contrary, is entirely worthy to fill the ‘vacant sleeve.’”

     I tend to believe he hit the mark here!

You can read more about Civil War prosthetics here.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

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