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Wooden Leg Outcast to Super Human Saviour: Prosthetics in Life and Popular Culture

August 20, 2015 | Marie | Comments (0)

I spent a day last week at Ontario's Accessibility Innovation Showcase (#OntarioAIS for Twitter users) down at the MaRs Discovery District. It highlighted the cutting-edge work of Ontario technology companies working to improve life for people with disabilities. It featured an amazing array of products and services.

The folks at the Otto Bock booth shared lots of information about the work they do. Otto Bock provided athletes with free repairs and maintenance on equipment and limbs at this month's Parapan Am Games.

I found out a lot about the latest prosthetics and mobility devices. The examples were awesome. Here's a mockup of a prosthetic for an above-the knee amputee.

The knee is key. It controls the movement of the lower leg and allows for maximum flexibility and operationally. This example is by no means fully complete.  This sample has a blade for the footpiece.  Otto Bock Full Leg

Feet are designed for specific purposes; there's a myriad of variations. These have a separate big toe.

Otto Bock Feet

Thank you to the Otto Bock staffers for giving me permission to photograph.

Toronto-based tech startup LegWorks won the $20,000 Accessibility Innovation Showcase Tech Pitch Competition with their high-performing prosthetic for universal use. The key to their success is the All-Terrain Knee.

Their social business model charges full price for people who can afford to pay so they can subsidize the service for people in developing countries. Former Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley presented the award.

  Leg works AIS 2015

The earliest known prosthetic devices are from Ancient Egypt.  The specimen in this photo is from Ancient Rome. Actually, it's a 1910 copy of a bronze prosthetic. The original dated from 3000 B.C.  It was housed in London and, despite efforts for safekeeping, was destroyed in a World War II air raid.

 Roman Leg


20th Century popular culture is rife with references to "wooden legs" as an indicator of low social status and being an societal outcast.

D.W. Griffith's 1909 film The Wooden Leg is about a young woman who borrows a wooden leg from a tramp in order to repel an unwanted suitor.  Anthony Balducci puts this film in context of popular culture in his book The Funny Parts: a history of film comedy routines and gags

The Cover Of The Funny Parts                                          The Cover of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives

Stephen Mihm explores the recent history of prosthetics within a popular culture lens in his book Artificial parts, practical lives: modern histories of prosthetics.

The quintessential "outsider" with a wooden leg is Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver. Many editions of Treasure Island feature the pirate, not the young hero, on the cover.  Long John captures young readers with an ideal combination of nurture and danger. The library has numerous editions in various formats. Long John is a perfect subject for creative illustrators!

Treasure Island First US Edition  Treasure Island Ingpen Illustrations Treasure Island NCW yeth Edition  Treasure Island Teen Graphic Novel

Indeed, since the days of Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John in the 1950 film Mr. Silver seems to be a flamboyant actor's best opportunity to flamboyantly chew up the scenery! A long list of powerful actors, including Tim Curry and Eddie Izzard and have interpreted this intriguing one-legged pirate.  

Treasure Island                   Treasure Island             Muppet Treasure Is land       

Can you imagine Long John Silver with a 21st century prosthetic? Well, you really don't have to. Since 2003 two-legged actor Geoffrey Rush has been ripping up the screen as Jack Sparrow's nemesis Barbossa in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, most lately one-legged. Rush pays homage to Robert Newton and contemporary special effects. Pirates VFX supervisor Simon Stanley-Clamp explains the magic of making a two-legged actor into a one-legged character. (Hint: it involves a blue sock)

Pirates Of The Caribbean The Curse Of The Black Pearl                  Pirates Of The Caribbean At Worlds End              Pirates Of The Caribbean On Stranger Tides

Cutting-edge technology has enabled prosthetic devices to become more than just a "get-by".  They are tools of personal empowerment, freedom and integration.  LegWorks' venture targeted for people in developing countries exemplifies this philosophy.

This hasn't been lost in popular culture. Cult filmmaker Robert Rodriguez' 2007 film Planet Terror features a female character with a full on right leg prosthetic. Which just happens to be a multi-use machine gun. Which just happens to help her save the world from the bad guys. She couldn't do that with a bronze prosthetic, could she?

  Cherry Darling Machine Gun Leg


Listen to Planet Terror's refreshingly loud and outrageous original soundtrack with your library card. Connect with Hoopla, our streaming music and video service, and it's right there. Enjoy!



The Accessibility Services Blog provides information and updates on current and upcoming library trends, programs, collections, and services to existing and potential TPL customers with disabilities, along with their friends and family. The blog offers a forum through which library customers can interact with TPL and share feedback and ideas, and communicate with staff. Features of the blog include highlights on special collections and assistive technologies available through the library, opportunities to get involved, and staff recommendations for programs, books and other materials.