Published at the century’s turn, George Edwin Marks’ treatise on prosthesis sought total knowledge. Not merely a history of artificial limbs, it spans more than five hundred pages, containing eight hundred illustrations. “An effort has been made to parallel every possible case of amputation”, begins the Preface, so that “[a]ny person who is maimed in leg, arm, foot, or hand will be able to find a case almost identical with his own”. Due to the injuries incurred during the Napoleonic Wars and the U.S. Civil War — and subsequent cultural representations and (often perverse) public fascination regarding amputees in nineteenth-century literature and visual culture — this Treatise bookends a period of maximum need and increased visibility.
Marks begins his historical treatment close to home: describing the genius of his relatives, the American brothers D. B. and A. A. Marks, who patented an artificial leg in 1854. Though business was initially slow — causing brother D. B. to hang up his limb-making hat — soon A. A.’s genius modernized the field, which, until the mid-nineteenth century, “was but the relic of the sixteenth and seventeenth century”, claims Marks, referring to the lasting influence of Ambroise Paré and Pieter Verduyn. The key to this prosthetic revolution, as we eventually learn, involved mechanical advancements in adjustable articulation. But first, history. We are led on a breathless tour of classical prosthesis — see Herodotus on the wood-footed Elean, “avowed enemy of the Lacedemonians”, for example, or Pliny on M. Sergius, the general who ruled with an iron fist. Mere paragraphs later, Marks arrives in the 1800s, during the introduction of so-called Cork Legs, which hold “a comely and approximately natural shape” when compared to “the primitive peg leg”. Marks is quick to demonstrate his expertise: cork was never actually used to any considerable extent, being too “friable and insufficiently resistant”. This does not stop the author from delving into literary history — he cites the anonymous “Song of the Cork Leg” and Thomas Hood’s unfortunate couplet, which addresses a Countess by rhyming stump and plump.
Soon A. A. Marks made an international impact. The Japanese Embassy visited his New York factory and the doctor Kawasaki accepted a gift with “great pleasure and many thanks” — one of Marks’ most beautiful models. But Marks had stiff competition abroad: the Count de Beaufort’s inflexible wooden leg had captured the European market. In an effort to improve upon his model and absorb the lumbery shock, Marks (the leg maker) added a rubber foot, which did more to lessen the sufferings of amputees than “any discovery the world has seen”.
If George Marks’ pamphlet is beginning to sound like propaganda for the family business, it might be forgiven due to the scope of its author’s empathy, however economically minded. His prosthetic history transforms into a sociological study of class — as Marks, sounding more like Marx, describes the asymmetrical precarity of industrialism — and then again into a medical discussion of “fit”, illustrating myriad prosthetic solutions for various kinds of bodies. While undoubtedly well-intentioned, [scholars of disability such as Katherine Ott](https://books.google.fi/books?id=cJm2qZw3CdAC&lpg=PP1&dq=history of prosthesis marks&pg=PP3#v=onepage&q&f=false) point out that manuals like these played into a wider cultural desire “to make the everyday into something exotic”. And the focus is always on the “maimed”, structured by pity and stories of loss, never on congenital difference.
One gets the sense, three hundred or so pages into the treatise, that Marks is almost modernist in his ambition and genre. Like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the Treatise seeks the universal in individual experience, with its seemingly endless considerations of specific trades (train conductor, farmer, house doctor, amanuensis) and the tailored physical requirements of work. Marks ends his text with the epistolary voices of those who benefited most from prosthesis. Hundreds of letters, dated and signed, are reproduced across scores of pages, testifying to the life-changing effects of artificial limbs.
September 7, 2021