For a short time, a photo of a little girl in ornately laced prosthetic legs baffled historians. Some felt that the sophistication of her prosthesis would have been impossible at the turn of the century, but rumors circulated that her legs were the work of a genius shoemaker living in Chard, England.
James Gillingham worked at The Golden Boot in 1864. That same year, a cannoneer named Will Singleton was gravely injured firing a cannon in celebration of future King Edward VII’s wedding. Singleton’s injuries were so severe that his right arm had to be amputated at the shoulder. Prosthetics had been around for hundreds of years at this point, but many were crude and heavy. Doctors said there was no way to fit him with a prosthetic arm, but Gillingham disagreed.
Gillingham offered to make Singleton an artificial limb at no cost. Using techniques he had been developing in secret, Gillingham made a limb from lightweight molded leather. The device was far ahead of its wooden counterparts. Singleton was capable of lifting heavy loads, using a spade, and even driving a wheelbarrow—all jobs necessary for his profession as a groundskeeper.
Gillingham had long been excited to test out his ideas and was able to publish the results of his first foray into prosthetics in the Medical Lancet Journal. He even met the Queen’s surgeon.
Gillingham had great prowess as an engineer and entrepreneur. He kept detailed records of his work and is recorded to have helped thousands of patients by 1910. He felt his process was simple. Instead of trying to sand bits of wood to then be primitively buckled to a patient, he fitted them with leather before heat treating it into the desired shape. To him, fitting the limb was the real work, and had to be done custom for each person.
These leather limbs were then laced on. They were lightweight, strong, and didn’t need repair often. Constructing a limb could take ten days, and stability could be improved by adding steel. Gillingham was obsessed with the practicality of his prosthetics. He created wrist supports, cutlery attachments, mechanical fingers, support harnesses, and padding as needed.
Though he had no medical training, he was described as a philanthropist at heart, often working out payment plans with patients, trying to find a way to help anyone who might need his services.
For Gillingham, it wasn’t just about giving people the bare minimum to survive. One farm laborer wrote him a note in 1880, illustrating the value a good prosthetic had:
“I should be able to scarce do anything without it [an arm]. I can shear 37 sheep a day, for which I get 9s. I can reap the corn with a machine, thatch and rick, pitch hay and corn. I pitched a load of corn from two until six o’clock, 40 stiches on each load, my master gave me 4s for my day’s work. I cannot be too thankful.”
One of the reasons patients like Gillingham’s work so much wasn’t just the utility his devices provided, but the sense of normalcy it returned to their lives. They could walk like everybody else agin. It wasn’t important whether their intricately carved hand was functional, what was important was that they had something that made them look and feel human. This mission is evident in his patient photography. Gillingham photographed every patient himself, and his artistic slant definitely promotes their humanity. These photos aren’t just dry reference photos of his creations, but portraits of the people he helped make whole again.
His family took over the business when he died in 1924. His business became an epicenter for prosthesis in the region, and would eventually become a hub for soldiers injured in the World Wars.