The early records of the Confederate Patent Office indicate that on March 23, 1863, with the war still waging throughout the South, he obtained his first patent, No. 155, “for an artificial limb.” Improvements to the first model came quickly, and in August of that year he filed patent papers for an improved version. His first store was opened in Richmond a few years later, and in 1871 he returned to Churchville to continue the business. One of the wounded amputees for whom he made a leg was Capt. Daingerfield.
Shortly thereafter, recognizing the need for a more workable prosthetic device for the returning wounded, the Virginia legislature contracted with Hanger to produce artificial or prosthetic limbs. He quickly obtained additional patents recognizing the improvements on his process, and the business began in earnest.
James Hanger married in 1873, and he and Nora McCarthy Hanger had six sons and two daughters. All of the Hanger boys ultimately followed their father in the business. While he retired in 1905, he continued as an adviser and even went to Europe after World War I to study new techniques in amputation surgery. His work with prosthetics continued, and the number of stores grew, as well. The once crippled young man became well known for his work, and his business was very profitable.
He also invented several other prosthetic devices, as well as developing a Venetian blind, an attachable shampoo bowl for barber chairs, a water turbine and a type of horseless carriage (used as a toy for his children). He also held a patent for a planograph lathe, used in the production of his famous limbs.
When the main office moved to Washington in 1883, Hanger and his family moved into a beautiful home near Logan Circle, which still stands. A history put together by the company, called “Enabling the Human Spirit: The J.E. Hanger Story,” juxtaposes the invention of his artificial leg in the Civil War era with today’s version used by athletes, among others.
One day Hanger noticed an elderly beggar near the U.S. Capitol. Both of the man’s legs had been amputated above the knee; he held out a hat to collect change from sympathetic passersby.
Hanger was touched by the man’s plight, and as Chris Ingraham recounts in the history, “Despite the stigma he knew might come from showing fondness to a minority at that time in the South’s history, it made little difference to James that the beggar was a man of color. What James saw was a man in need of two legs. He took the man in to his shop and fit him, free of charge, with two of the company’s newest and most functional prosthetic limbs.”
Ultimately the two became friends, and the man was hired by Hanger to work for the firm, a symbol of the individual care he sought to provide for amputees all over the world.
When Hanger died on June 15, 1919 and was buried in the District’s Glenwood Cemetery, Hanger Co. had branches in London and Paris, where prosthetics were manufactured after World War I, as well as in Philadelphia, Atlanta and St. Louis. But that was only the beginning.
Although there are none of the direct line of Hangers still in the business, today Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc. is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and has more than 1,000 employees in 44 states. There have been several acquisitions by the company, and it continues to show a promising future.
The Washington Post lists Bethesda-based Hanger Orthopedic as among the 125 largest companies in the area. Fortune Magazine ranked it as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. The small firm begun by a Confederate veteran is now one of the largest of its type in the world.
The beautiful grave marker of Quincy granite lists only the names of Hanger and his wife and their dates of birth and death; there is no mention of the tremendous gift James Hanger gave to the world of the injured.
As Kevin Carroll said, “Here we are, back in war, and a lot of our young soldiers are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq injured and missing limbs, They’re bringing back their ideas on what needs to be done with prosthetics. War, unfortunately, brings a lot of new medical techniques and developments, and it has continued from 1861 right up to the present day.”