Workshop 3 – Disability & Prostheses

This third two-day workshop (18/19 September) will investigate patenting cultures with particular regard to disability & prostheses.  By the end of the nineteenth century, an industry built around prosthetic appliances – hearing aids, spectacles, walking sticks and specialist furniture – flourished in several countries across the industrial world in ways linked to modern industrialization, commercialization, professionalization and the destructive processes of large-scale warfare. At least some of this production operated independently of the medical system since not all disabled groups were medicalized nor did all inventors develop their prostheses and assistive devices under the jurisdiction of clinical professionals.  However, their work was commonly linked to systems of patenting and consumption in ways less ethically constrained than patenting for medical, surgical instruments and pharmaceuticals (Ott, Serlin & Mihm), especially in the USA. It was thus subject to the same concerns and pressures as instruments and pharmaceuticals, and also began to operate independently as manufacturers found new market niches and users began to stimulate innovation.

Much historical work to date has been conducted on the significant effect of the Civil War and the First World War on the rise of prosthesis production and usage in Europe and the USA. Nonetheless, we are still some way from understanding the relationship between physical impairment and commerce and the ways in which the commodification of disability affected everyday life and health. The study of patented devices for disability support provides us with ways to uncover trade/user relationships, as well as a way of assessing meanings and conceptions of disability more holistically – especially for those cases in which disabled groups themselves took the initiative in patenting activity. Manufacturers were very often users and vice versa, particularly in the period before the professionalization of medical specialisms in relevant areas (see Cooter on orthopaedics).  One key difference to explore between the case of patenting for disability and for medical purposes is the issue of professionalization: wars and industrialization brought new large scale processes of bodily mutilation to the attention of physicians.

Key questions include:

i) What sorts of appliances (patented or unpatented) were used by disabled people to manage their condition? Most studies have focused on artificial limbs but we need to open up the field to include other prostheses such as breasts, dentures, ears, larynxes, noses and penises but also other appliances such as hearing aids, wheelchairs and furniture. Analyses of more inclusive sets of aids should also be compared to other everyday objects, such as furniture.

ii) What sorts of relationships can be adduced between consumption, production and patenting both in the UK and globally? Appliance manufacturers certainly seemed to patent their devices more regularly than for other medical items but how and why did this vary between appliances? Were manufacturers who were themselves disabled, or had disabled people among their relatives, particularly prominent in the use of patents to protect their appliances from plagiarism or infringement proceedings by rivals? Examples might include hearing aids (the Amplivox collection at the Thackray Museum in Leeds), prosthetic limbs (numerous examples from the US Civil War and subsequent conflicts) wheelchairs, and improvements to Braille. How far were medical practitioners involved with these developments? Were prosthetic appliances seen as occupying a kind of non-medical domain for which patenting was acceptable?

iii) How did war affect patenting activity of such appliances? Ott has demonstrated the dramatic increase in the registration of patents in America following the Civil War and others have examined similar trends in facial reconstruction after WW1, but was this the case elsewhere and for other appliances?

iv) How did the gendered nature of appliances affect patenting activity? Most studies of artificial limbs and facial reconstruction are almost always exclusively male because they focus on industrial works and primarily, soldiers, but how far did women also play a role in the patenting and marketing of such appliances?