In 1905, an Ohio farmer survived a railroad accident that cost him both of his legs. Two years later, he founded the Ohio Willow Wood company, using the namesake timber to hand-carve prosthetic limbs. The company grew, surviving the Great Depression and a fire that destroyed the plant, and still thrives today in rural Ohio. Few who work there now might remember the curious footnote in the company’s history that occurred during World War II, when the rebuilt factory was diversified to build parts for PT boats and B-17 bombers.
Today, it is ironic to consider a company that specializes in prosthetic limbs building parts for the war machine that unfortunately increases demand on companies making prosthetic limbs. Indeed, the tragedy of war has pushed prosthetics researchers to work ever harder to help service members and veterans who have lost limbs.
That has made the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs a key player in prosthetics development and technological innovation. But what is created for service members and veterans has benefits far beyond them, helping nearly two million Americans – civilian children, elderly people and young adults with amputations – maximize their mobility.
A key funding source
As a biomedical engineer specializing in prosthetics, I’ve reviewed grant proposals seeking funding from the VA to research prosthetic limbs for several years.
The federal government has long played a vital role in advancing prosthetic technologies. Before the 1980s, prosthetic feet were adequate for standing and walking, but very limited for more intense activities involving running and jumping. Veterans Administration Rehabilitation Research and Development funds were used to develop the Seattle Foot. That device and its carbon-fiber contemporaries paved the way for “blade”-style prostheses seen in the Paralympics.
Decades later, defense-related government spending continues to drive innovation in prosthetics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has gained attention with the “Luke Arm,” named after a certain fictitious Mr. Skywalker, and headlines that read like they’re actually from Star Wars: “DARPA…