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Making first artificial leg
Question of the Day
At about the same time that Hanger was injured, another Rebel soldier, Capt. Fauntleroy Daingerfield, also sustained a leg injury when a Minie ball shattered his knee. A Confederate surgeon, Dr. John T. Huff, was forced to amputate Daingerfield’s leg with a butcher knife and carpenter’s saw the next day, on June 4. Thus they became the first two amputations of the war.
Hanger, a prisoner, was then moved to the Philippi Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been converted to a hospital, and from there to the home of a couple who lived nearby, Mr. and Mrs. William McClaskey. As Southern sympathizers, they were happy to care for the young man.
Soon the Union Army took over their home, and Hanger was again moved, this time to a farm known as Cherry Hill, already converted to a hospital. Here, the young Hanger probably was given his first artificial leg. It amounted to a straight, heavy wooden device strapped to the stump, the original “peg leg,” characterized by its total lack of mobility and the thumping noise it made, which could be heard quite a distance away.
Amputation in that era frequently carried a death sentence. Recovery was long and arduous, care was difficult to manage in or around a battlefield, and post-surgical infection ran rampant, upping the mortality rate to about 52 percent if the amputation was delayed more than 48 hours. While there were about 16,000 amputations in World War II, in the Civil War the number was over 50,000.
The ultimate success rate in an injury such as Hanger’s depended on whether the leg was removed above or below the knee. The lower ones seemed to heal better and a prosthesis was easier to become accustomed to; above the knee the problems of mobility and stability had to be addressed.
Apparently Hanger dealt with the artificial device the best he could, even though it was ill-fitting and each step brought unremitting discomfort. Still a prisoner, he was sent to Camp Chase in Ohio, and from there to Norfolk, Va., where he finally was exchanged two months later and could go home to Mount Hope Farm, Va., near Churchville.
Alone in his room
It is said that after arriving home, he locked himself in his room for three months, seeing no one, and the family feared he was slipping into a deep depression. He asked only that his meals be left outside his door. An hour or so later, his mother would find the empty plates left outside.
Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for the national firm that bears Hanger’s name, says the family history indicates that “from time to time he’d call to his mother to bring him some wood, or some pieces of metal, leather, fabric, etc.”
The family provided as much assistance as he would allow — they would leave buckets of fresh wood outside his door, and the next day remove the same buckets, full of wood shavings.
“The family would hear him stumping around up there,” Mr. Carroll said, “but after about three months, the door opened and he came walking down the stairs, amazing his family.” And thus was born the “Hanger Limb,” the first articulated, double-joint prosthetic leg, bending at both the ankle and the knee.
Hanger had studied engineering at Washington College, and using oak whiskey barrel staves roughly 1½ inches thick, by trial and error, with only a pen knife as a cutting instrument, he finally achieved the design of a leg that would give the wearer stability, yet allow the joints to bend as they should. And it would look like a real leg as well.
Realizing that his invention would be a godsend to many wounded veterans, he began making artificial limbs for other soldiers, and their successful use brought him instant fame. He served out the rest of his time with the Staunton Home Guard, working on his new invention at the same time.
By Michael P. Orsi
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