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By Stewart Emmens on

Arms, Legs And Ex-servicemen

Of all our many and varied medical objects in storage, it’s the artificial limbs that visitors often find the most striking. Occupying two whole rooms, the majority were acquired from Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, which opened 95 years ago this month.

Artificial limbs
Limbs from Queen Mary's Hospital in our London store (Stewart Emmens)

The date is significant. By 1915, the trickle of amputees shipped home to Britain in the early weeks of the First World War was becoming a torrent. The authorities, who were obliged to provide them with artificial limbs, were soon overwhelmed. The new hospital was a response to this crisis.

Limb fitting at Queen Mary's
Limb fitting at Queen Mary's Hospital, c1916-1918 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As the War progressed, St Mary’s became the main focus of limb production and fitting in the UK. A specialist service it retains to this day.

This collection contains examples from across the 20th century, but those relating to the two World Wars form the largest groups. Retained by the hospital when veterans were issued new prostheses, they have some of the most intriguing back stories.

Artificial leg
Artificial leg with extensive 'home repairs' (Science Museum)

Perhaps the strangest is this limb, worn for over 40 years by one ex-soldier. Made of fibre and intended only as temporary measure, its owner didn’t return Queen Mary’s for his proper limb-fitting. He preferred to prolong this pylon leg’s life – through occasional applications of glue, wire mesh…..and cement. It now weighs over 20 kg. Amazingly for most of that 40 years he worked as a roof thatcher and tiler.

Artificial leg
Artificial leg made for a prisoner of war, c.1943 (Science Museum)

More subtly ingenious is this limb, handed in by a survivor of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. One of several made by fellow captive and surgeon Julian Taylor, it’s made from metal salvaged from a crashed aircraft. As an added touch for the British owner, who’d have worn little more than shorts in the sweltering heat, it is – of course – painted pink.