Horrific wounds from new technological advances such as shrapnel and machine guns meant that over 41,000 men in the British Armed Forces alone lost at least one limb as a result of injuries gained during the First World War. For men who had lost arms or legs, their immediate future was difficult to say the least. Before the War, prosthetic arms and legs were heavy and unwieldy designs that often caused the wearer pain and discomfort. They were expensive to acquire and maintain, over time they would degrade and break. They were designed to be aesthetically pleasing rather than functional and, as a result, were – particularly in the case of arms – almost useless as usable replacements. The huge and sudden need for many thousands of artificial limbs between 1914-1918, prompted a revolution in the treatment of amputees and the design of prosthetic arms and legs.
When establishing Erskine, Sir William Macewen was adamant that artificial limbs would be produced on site at the hospital with input from patients in the design and production process. At the launch of the Erskine scheme on 29th March 1916 he gave a stirring speech in which he called to arms the might of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry:
‘Having unbounded confidence in the potentiality of Glasgow and in the capacity youth and vigour of her sons I have no hesitation in saying that even were we left without professional limb makers we would still get in such a cause, those who would make artificial limbs sufficient for demand. Why we have men here whose creative genius has made the Dreadnoughts possible, and others who call into existence the lightest, fastest ships afloat and whose works are dreams realised of what physics may create’-Sir William Macewen, 29 March 1916
Industry leaders were happy to help and Glasgow shipyards supplied artificial limbs at production cost without any profit.
Before the outbreak of war there was no limb manufacturing industry in Britain and the War Office was sceptical of Macewen’s plans. Lord Provost Sir Thomas Dunlop recalled a meeting with at the War Office in connection with the establishment of the hospital and said that the officials were inclined to think they could not get the limbs made on the Clyde… “We opened a bag” said the Lord Provost “took out a limb and said ‘there is a limb made by a workman at Yarrows yard in 48 hours”.
Limb manufacturing moved from the shipyards to the hospital in 1917. In September 1918 Sir Harold Yarrow reported to the committee that many improvements had been made to the limbs based on the research and experiences of patients. One notable development was the reduction in weight without sacrificing durability and strength. Despite the improvements the limbs were sill heavy and sometimes uncomfortable many men preferred to use their peg leg rather than the more sophisticated permanent leg.
Although thousands of Erskine artificial limbs were produced between 1916-1928 very few have survived. The only known surviving Erskine leg is currently on display in the Hunterian Museum Glasgow (on loan from the Science Museum London) as part of the In War & Peace: The Erskine Story exhibition open until January 2017. Examples of hands carved in Yarrow shipyards can be seen in the museums permanent collection.
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