What I wish I’d known about periods

I had a basic intro to periods, very much the nuts and bolts and much less about the experience of it all.  There are so many things we don’t really discuss and really should do so that girls don’t go through their teens and twenties wondering if this or that is normal.  And we really need to get over euphemisms…  And boys and men really need to learn about periods…

When you are on your period you may…

  • have clots. Clots that look a lot like something has been living inside you and died. Clots that look a lot like images anti-abortion people use to argue against early pregnancy abortion. These clots are normal.  They are made of blood and tissue.  Everything I’ve read suggests you only need to be concerned if they are larger than a 10p piece.
  • find that the colour of the blood changes.
  • think that everyone can smell that you’re on your period, but really they can’t.
  • have diarrhoea. The body releases prostaglandins which cause your uterus to cramp and your digestive system is very close and can cramp by association.
  • use products other than just tampons and towels.  See period pants and menstrual cups as well as other reusable options.  You can use whatever works for you.  If you go with tampons or cups, you may need to practice.
  • have period pains that affect more than just your uterus.  You may get headaches, back pain, sore breasts, leg ache…
  • feel bloating
  • leak on your underwear, clothes, pjs and bedding.  A great way to get blood out of fabric is to soak it in cold water with salt.
  • get blood on your hands. You probably will.  It washes off.  It’s cool.
  • get the wings on your sanitary towel stuck to each other and have to fight with them to get them apart.
  • want to use a period tracking app – technically not what i wish i’d known as smartphones weren’t around but use technology to help you!
  • if you need period products when you’re in public, you can ask a stranger in the bathroom.
  • a bit of an aside but your discharge changes throughout the month and you can use this to tell if you’re ovulating.

What do you wish you’d known earlier in your menstruating life?

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Death Around The World

In America, death has become a big business since the start of the 20th century.  Before this, families were in charge of the body, the funeral and what happened after that.  It would have been seen as odd if you weren’t involved in preparing your loved one for the afterlife.  Today, we are very detached from death and the rituals we have around death echo this.

Whilst this might be the case in America and the UK, other parts of the world do things very differently.  This is the topic of From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and I would highly recommend giving it a read.  See what takes your fancy for your own death, and have a think about what really grates on you and why.  And most importantly, have a conversation, or multiple, about death.

A few themes weave their way through the different cultures that are covered in the book, including that of an intimate goodbye and a much more natural seeming option for what happens after death.  For example, a 30 year old man from Belize, told Doughty that when he dies, he’d like to “be buried in a simple hole, shrouded with an animal skin, with leaves lining the walls of the grave.  He plans on designing the animal shroud himself.”

Religion and culture are often the forces that define when death occurs.  And that seems an odd thing to say from a Western perspective but death is more ambiguous that we give it credit for.  Even within Western cultures, we find a physical and a social death.

Physical death: the point after which the body begins to break down

Social death: The point at which a person is no longer a socially active member of a group – you can persist as a social entity long after physical death through memories, mementos etc.

“The way that the corpse is understood effects the way we look at its disposal”
– Olson, 2014 (I forgot to note a first name, I think it was Phil, sorry if it wasn’t!)

In Indonesia, the people of Toraja have a different defined point of death.  Whilst a person may have stopped breathing, they are considered to be in a state more like illness.  This illness will last until an animal – buffalo or pig – has been sacrificed, then the person will be able to die.  During the illness phase, the body is kept in the home, and this can last several years.  Whilst in the home, the family cares for their family member, making sure they have food, changing their clothing, speaking to them and even sharing a bed with them.

This can seem, to eyes from another culture, to be disgusting or disrespectful but that is far from the truth.  The acts are seen as a way of showing love and respect and a way of caring for a loved one that recognises the strength of that bond.  It is an intimate process and a meaningful way to stay connected to a loved one.

After death, most of us think that of burial and cremation, with the latter occurring within the context of a professionalised crematory.  But we have been dealing with death since humanity first began and thus our versions of these rituals are just a touch of the ice burg.

Possibly the earliest example of cremation is found in Australia and refers to the bones of a woman who lived about 42,000 years ago.  She is known as the Mungo Lady and was cremated, then the remaining bones were crushed, and in a second cremation were burned.  We also know that other parts of the world, such as the Ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, and Hindus have practised cremation as a way to cleanse and liberate the soul.

In Italy, in 1869, burial was announced to be unhygienic and thus cremation was touted as the best option for your corpse.  It was presented as being a way to save yourself from being eaten by worms.  The machines used in cremation today, closely resemble those from the 1800s and have a heavy impact on the environment.  To burn quickly, it’s recommended that you have a wooden coffin as cardboard – which intuitively feels more environmentally friendly – burns too quickly so more fuel has to be used to burn the body.  Additionally, there are various byproducts which aren’t that great…

Most cremation in the western world goes on behind closed doors, away from the family, away from view.  Then the ashes are turned into something unrecognisable from the human that the family knew and loved.  As an aside, these are not like on films, they will not scatter into the breeze.  One friend described them as more like cat litter…

One thing I found very interesting is that in the UK, any metal that is left after the body has been cremated gets collected by a company from the Netherlands which then turns it into cars and bikes and taxis.

Japan has the highest rate of cremation, with 99.9% of dead people being cremated.  They also have some fantastically innovative options for the cremated remains, which are normally devoid of individuality.  With an ageing population, the dead may not have someone to tend to their grave or the site of their ashes and so technology has stepped up.  Large buildings store multiple sets of remains and thus the care and tending is carried out by monks.  If you are a relative who cannot get there, you can check in on your relative online, even experience a virtual gravestone with virtual incense and flowers and offerings.

Traditionally, after a Japanese cremation, the family will pick bones from the ashes.

“The family are handed pairs of chopsticks, one made of bamboo, one made of metal.  The chief mourner begins with the feet, picking up bones with the chopsticks and placing them in the urn.  Other family members join in and continue up the skeleton.  The skull will not fit into the urn intact, so the cremator might intervene to break it up into smaller bone fragments using a metal chopstick.  The final bone, the hyoid (the horseshoe-shaped bone underneath the jaw) is placed in the urn last.”
– Doughty

There is an aspect of caring going on here, as well as following reassuring rituals at a time when nothing seems to make sense.  It provides the opportunity for you to carry out something meaningful, something that you can do when there is very little you can do.

Another obvious model for death, dying and grief comes from Mexico where traditions, including the Day of the Dead, embraces and exists alongside death.

“For the families, this night is not just a one-way acceptance of offerings for their dead; it is an exchange with the community.”
– Doughty

There are so many amazing, fascinating death rituals that can be found all round the world and of course I will only be touching on a few.  With this in mind, I really suggest reading up about sky burials.  Many of us have heard of them but know little about the actualities of the ceremony.  In part of India, cremation and burial are considered off limits as post-death options because unclean dead bodies are thought to defile the sacred elements of earth, fire and water.  Hence the body must go to the sky.  In Tibet, wood (for cremation) is scarce, and the ground is too hard and cold for burial, so again, we have turned to the sky.  This is where the vultures come in.  These sky dancers carry the body, in pieces, up into the sky and your body is returned to nature.

Where America and the UK avoid death, formalise death and deny death, Mexico embraces it and in bringing death out of the shadows, they create space for grief, and thus for healing.  My own experience of non western death comes from Togo.  In a remote, mountainous area, I found myself at a funeral and there was a visceral, almost violent outpouring of grief.  To my 18 year old eyes and ears, it seemed intense and felt uncomfortable.  But even then, it felt more authentic than what I imagined a western funeral to be like (my own granma had asked that children weren’t at the funeral when she died).  There was something in the chanting and singing and wailing that felt powerful, and healing.

Whilst I have been hard on the west, things are starting to change.  Just a few weeks ago, I went to a few talks about death as part of York’s Dead Good Festival.  This included a talk about the cremation process, about natural burials and about what happens if you donate your body to medical education.

In the UK, traditional burial is waning in popularity, with 77% of people choosing cremation by fire and with natural burials becoming increasingly popular since 1994.

“The poet Walt Whitman spoke of soil and earth as the great transformers, accepting “the leavings” of men and producing “such divine materials.”  Whitman marvelled at the ability of the earth to reabsorb the corrupt, the vile, the diseased, and produce new, pristine life.”
– Doughty

And what could be more inspiring that that?!  As one person Doughty met said, it takes nine months to grow a baby, perhaps it should take the same time for the body to disintegrate, rather than the few hours that cremation takes.

Natural burials can be more personalised, more intimate and have more family involvement.  You can say goodbye to your loved ones in a way that reflects who you were in life and, in giving your body back to nature, you feed the very landscape you will spend eternity in.  And that’s a really important point – very often, if you choose traditional burial, you are only guaranteed that site for a set number of years, after that, you may find yourself getting rehomed.

Another way to die as you lived, is to donate yourself to medical education.  As a clarification, many people seem to muddle whole body donation with organ donation.  The first is where your body is used by medical students and the second is where your organs are given to a living person who needs them.

In the UK, you can tick a box on your drivers license to agree to organ donation and as of some point in 2020, it will become an opt out system instead of opt in.  This means your organs will be up for grabs, unless you have specified otherwise.  For whole body donation, you need to contact an anatomy unit.  If you visit the Human Tissue Authority you can get more information about body donation as well as find out where your nearest unit is.

If your body is accepted for organ donation, it is unlikely to be used for medical education – they need whole bodies, preferably ‘normal’ bodies for the students to learn from.  If you are accepted for whole body donation, you may be used for either up to three years, or indefinitely depending on what you choose.  After you’ve been used, there will be a funeral and a thanksgiving ceremony.  Family can be involved as much or as little as they want but the funeral is free and provides a way of memorialising the death.  The thanksgiving ceremony is an opportunity for the medical school to acknowledge this ultimate gift.

In the UK, you donate directly to medical schools but in the US, there are body brokers and some of these seem to be profit driven so do your research. Other uses for bodies include researching specific conditions, for military weapons testing, for car safety and even in body farms.

Further reading:

A short history of period products

Today we are lucky to have a choice of period products, including disposable and reusable options.  Traditionally, however, people who menstruate haven’t been so lucky…

Back in ancient Egypt, papyrus was used and in ancient Japan paper was used.  The Native Americans made a version of sanitary towels using buffalo skin and moss, which, comparatively, sounds heavenly!

That said, as an aside, it’s not always clear what is true.  Take the case of Tampax telling website readers that in ancient Greece, wool was wrapped around wood and used as a tampon.  As appealing as the myth seems to be, it’s likely just that.  Although it could be a misunderstanding of an ancient Greek treatment for vaginal issues, it could be an attempt by tampon companies at naturalising their product, especially given we’ll see the concerns around virginity later… Another problem is that most of history is written by men… And upper class men at that…

“Part of the reason that there is little extant evidence is located in the dual nature of sanitary protection.  This subject is both taboo and mundane, leading to an apparent lack of contemporary early modern sources.  Menstruation is a commonplace experience for women the world over, yet it is often considered a subject to be left unspoken.”
 – Sara Read

Evidence that Read has found, suggests that in the 17th century, some women were using ‘clouts’ or ‘rags’, folded cloths used to absorb blood.  However, this wasn’t across all classes.  She has found other evidence that suggests only higher ranking women would wear sanitary protection.  Sponges may have been used, possibly just by prostitutes.  Her paper, linked below, is a very interesting read about attitudes and beliefs around menstruation in early modern England as well as practices.

Whilst DIY methods were certainly used, and especially in more recent history we know rags or homemade pads were used, for much of history, it’s likely that free bleeding was the main ‘choice’, especially amongst the poorer strata of society.

In the second half of the 19th century, a variety of patents were filed in the US for various period paraphernalia – and as an aside, much of what I’ve been able to find is based on period products in the US.  These included horrific sounding early takes on a menstrual cup – generally made of metal or hard rubber, rubber pants and period aprons…

“The menstrual apron and pad holder in front are cloth-covered rubber. The wearer pinned absorbent cloth, such as bird’s-eye diaper cloth, onto the inner side of the holder. Of course, the woman wore the whole contraption “backwards,” under her dress, and over her buttocks, to keep the menstrual blood away from her clothing.”
– Museum of Menstruation

You can see an advert for one of these over at MUM.

Whilst all the options pre-20th century sound awful, they were also being used at a time when people had fewer periods.  Between a later age of menarche, more pregnancies and time spent breastfeeding and poor nutrition, menstruation was often suppressed during an adult’s life.

A lot changed at the back end of the 19th century when disposable sanitary towels went on sale.  By the 1890s, middle class women were ordering mass produced sanitary napkins, or buying the fabric to make their own at home.  Disposable options were particularly revolutionary.  Before this, women were trying to deal with bloody cloths and handwashing but now, they could simply be thrown away – funny how things go full circle!

In 1899, a female German doctor wrote the following in a book aimed at middle class women:

“It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.”

This suggests that this was a very common practice, and also adding weight to the move towards contraptions to deal with bleeding.  This also came at a time when, in America at least, menstrual blood was considered dangerous and so reusable rags were thought to harbour germs and gases which could contaminate the user.  Advertising claimed that doctors supported disposable options as healthier.  For anyone starting their period at this time, commercial options seemed to be the ideal, a basic necessity.

A common method of protection in the 1900s included linen belts with napkins pinned to them and by the 1920s, the belts were sued with disposable napkins.  During the first world war, nurses had noticed the cellulose that was used for bandages absorbed blood better than cotton.  They realised the potential and began using it for their periods.  Kotex saw the market opportunity and manufactured these new, highly absorbent, disposable napkins.

The 1930s saw the arrival of tampons for married women but were not for unmarried women as it was thought they would break the very precious hymen.  It was 1929 that Dr Haas created the tampon, likely based on earlier prototypes, and it was also likely that being a male doctor gave him some kudos.  A businesswoman marketed them under the name Tampax in 1936 and whilst it was adopted by some, others thought because it was worn internally it was little more than a dildo.  In reality, tampons offered freedom from belts, pins, pads and chafing and allowed for physical activity.  Dancers and swimmers in particular welcomed them.

Around this time, Leona Chalmers patented the menstrual cup, but it didn’t take off.

Concerns around tampons were addressed in the 1940s. Dr Robert Latou Dickinson gave tampons a boost when he said that they are narrow enough not to break the hymen and hence are not a threat to virginity.  He also said that any sexual stimulation from the tampon was momentary and nothing compared to how the sanitary pad rubbed against the body.

Despite the expectation that women should work through their periods during World War Two, the 50s found women encouraged to be quiet and restful instead.  It was at this time that PMS was labelled.

In the 1960s, washable cloth pads came back into fashion and with the hippie movement, the menstrual cup was relaunched but again it didn’t take off.  In 1969, the self adhesive pad came out and allowed you to get rid of the belts and pins.

By the 90s, sanitary towels had grown wings and although bulkier than the pads today, they were very recognisable.  Despite many people using tampons, fears over the hymen remained.  A Tampax advert in Seventeen, showed a concerned girl asking if she’d still be a virgin if she used a tampon.

In the 2000s  and 2010s, menstrual cups finally took off and period pants hit the market and reusable and environmentally friendly products have grown in popularity.

Links

A short history of wheelchairs

As a wheelchair user, I started to wonder how my life might have been had I been born 100 years ago, 500 years ago or 1000 years ago and (assuming I actually survived) this would be very dependant on the types of wheelchairs that were available.  With this in mind, I ventured into the history of wheelchairs.

Early images of wheelchairs are found in stone carvings in China and on a Greek vase.  The former showing a wheeled transport device and the latter a wheeled bed for a child.  But despite these early records, the first known dedicated wheelchair was invented in 1595.  It was made for Phillip II of Spain and had small wheels at the end of the chair’s legs, a platform for his legs and an adjustable backrest.  It wasn’t self propelled but then again he was a king so was probably surrounded by servants anyway!

Sixty years later, Stephen Farffler made a self propelling chair which was mounted on a three wheel chassis and had handles on the front wheel which allowed the user to move without assistance.  The handles operated a bit like a hand bike…

Possibly the best known early wheelchair is the Bath chair, named after the city, not the washing facility.  It was created by John Dawson and had two large wheels and one small.  It was steered using a stiff handle but was very heavy and had to be pushed or pulled.  This version of the wheelchair outsold others in the early 19th century but it wasn’t comfortable and so adjustments and improvements were made over time.

In 1869 we have a patent for the first wheelchair with rear push wheels and small front casters, something we would easily recognise today.  Again, this model needed improving and a few years later, hollow rubber wheels were used, pushrims for self propelling were invented in 1881 and in 1900 we find the first spoked wheels.

Injured soldiers returning home from World War Two were more likely to survive certain injuries because of the discovery of antibiotics.  This meant that there was a sudden influx of people who had spinal injuries etc that would previously have killed them.  In turn, this meant an increased need for wheelchairs.  Depending on their injury, some of these veterans would have been unable to self propel and, having previously been active, would have found themselves dependant on others.

It was one of these soldiers, who was frustrated with his situation, who advocated for a better wheelchair.  This combined with Canada’s commitment to veteran support, resulted in a request to George Klein to build a brand new type of wheelchair.  After Canadian vets had been given their electrically powered chairs, an effort was made to engage manufacturers.  One of which was Everest & Jennings.

Harry Jennings built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair in 1932 for his friend Herbert Everest.  They then joined forces to set up Everest & Jennings who monopolised the wheelchair market for years.  In 1956 they were the first to mass produce electric wheelchairs.  These were fairly rudimentary, had only two speeds and were very bulky but still, they paved the way for the plethora of electric wheelchairs we have today.

Whilst slightly off topic, it’s worth noting that 1952 saw the beginning of wheelchair sports and by 1960, the first Paralympic games were being held.  The increased visibility of people with wheelchairs alongside the more specialised uses for them, almost certainly aided the refinement and variety of chairs that we are now lucky to have.

Moving forward, in the second half of the twentieth century, developments to the wheelchair happened quickly.  Motors were added to standard wheelchairs, then lightweight aluminium was used and the availability of plastic inevitably led to further innovations. Further, as computer technology boomed in the last fifty or so years, we have seen these enhance and improve the available powerchair technology.

Today we have wheelchairs that can be used in sports, that are very lightweight, that can raise the user up so that we can sit at bars, that can be controlled in different ways and which ultimately allow many more people control over their movement.  Wheelchairs, powered or not, are highly customisable and although I haven’t sat in a pre-20th century one, I can imagine, are significantly more comfortable and allow for a better quality of life.

Aside, please don’t use the term wheelchair bound.  A lot of wheelchair users can walk or stand, and even those who can’t, aren’t tied to their chairs.  It also makes it seem like wheelchairs are a terrible burden and whilst they aren’t perfect, they are amazing and significantly improve people’s lives.

Links

A short history of mental illness

I will also be doing a series of posts on the history of disability and obviously there are overlaps between this topic and that one.  I will also be focusing on England with this post. 

With the history of mental health, it’s harder to establish particular attitudes and practices as you get further back in history.  Often mental illness and physical illness are conflated or not specific and because of this, I decided not to start with the ancient world today.  Obviously our ideas of mental illness today are very different to those in the past and so too is the language used.  Please bear this all in mind as you read on.

“Whether a behavior is considered normal or abnormal depends on the context surrounding the behavior and thus changes as a function of a particular time and culture.”
Noba Project

Very early understandings of mental illness often attributed a supernatural cause, such as being possessed by the devil or having displeased a god.  Naturally this understanding of the problem influenced the treatment and in the case of having an evil spirit inside you, trepination may be the answer.  It involved drilling a hole in the sufferers skull to release the spirit.

Supernatural causes of mental illness were prevalent between the 11th and 15th centuries as people searched for reasons for natural disasters such as the plagues and famines.  This was also when we had the witch trials and I’ll talk more about that in a different post, for now though, I want to note that not everyone thought mental illness was down to the devil.  Johann Weyer and Reginald Scot believed that people being accused of witchcraft were actually suffering from mental illness and that the mental illness was down to disease, not demons.  The church banned their writings.

As you can see, mental illness was often tied to religion or spirituality and in-keeping with this, it was generally the monks and nuns which provided care for people who were ill.

The first English hospital for the mentally ill was Bedlam.  It was established as a hospital in the 13th century and by 1403, ‘lunatics’ made up the majority of the patients.  Originally run by monks, Henry VIII seized Beldam during the dissolution.  Before he died he transferred control to the Corporation of London making it a civic, not religious, institution.  In 1619 Helkian Crook became the first medically qualified ‘keeper’ and shows that mental illness was starting to be seen as a medical issue.  Despite this slow change in London, mental illness was still seen by many as supernatural or religious in origin.  Symptoms included those that you would expect today but also included not praying, not feeling pious, talking too much, sexual urges and hatred of your spouse.  As you can see, some of these symptoms were a way of controlling those who didn’t conform.

On the whole, as was the case with disability, most people were cared for by family or the community although there were a number of mentally ill people who were living on the streets.  In the eyes of the law, during the 16th and 17th century, they were seen as unable to reason and responsibility for their affairs was allocated by the Court of Wards.

Around this time, there was a move towards asylums and this was based on the belief that people who were mentally ill could thrive in a clean, healthy institution such as York Retreat.  Unfortunately, we also find asylums being treated like zoos.  It was considered entertaining to visit and see the patients in Bedlam and I suspect the situation was the same in other asylums.  Conditions were dreadful, people were tortured and forced to live or exist in appalling situations whilst also being displayed in a humiliating fashion.

Attitudes towards mental illness inevitably change as science and medicine evolves and prevalent beliefs alter.  At the end of the 18th century, with the enlightenment, it was thought that people arrived as a blank slate and your outcome was down to nurture.  This obviously affected how people saw disability and mental illness

The industrial revolution brought vast changes to the landscape and the emphasis was heavily on productive workers.  At this time, there was a rapid expansion of institutions and people with mental illness were moved from home to asylums.  Early ideas focused on moral treatments but professionals quickly lost interest or hope with this approach.

By 1900, more than 100,000 ‘idiots and lunatics’ were living in 120 county pauper asylums and 10,000 in workhouses across the country.  It was thought that financial aid to help people live in the community encouraged laziness.  They didn’t seem especially concerned that asylums were expensive and often people who went in, never came out, spending a long and miserable life there.  Rather, reformers who encouraged the building of asylums, claimed that they would be a safe space to cure people or to teach them useful skills.

The buildings themselves could be made up with long corridors, sometimes ¼ mile long, or rows of blocks.  Men and women were segregated and dormitories could consist of up to 50 beds which stripped patients of privacy and space – beds were crammed in and the person next to you could be an arms length away.  High walls prevented escape and staff lived on site, making them a self contained world.  There was always a cemetery and some even had their own railway station… They were to all intents and purposes a world of their own, and a law unto themselves.  This allowed poor practices and abuse to run riot and the outside world were oblivious.

Whilst I’m sure many of the patients did have mental illness, the asylum also feels like it was used as a bit of a dumping ground with people being admitted on dubious grounds.  Those who did have mental illness often suffered from things which we see as very treatable today, such as panic attacks, and it’s highly likely that being in the asylum did more harm than good.

In 1948, the NHS was created and asylums etc were no longer separate to the physical side of health.  Psychiatrists began to experiment with treatments and physical activity was carried out on the body to help treat the mind eg ECT was widely used to treat depression.  Another bodily based treatment involved giving patients insulin to induce a coma, as a way to treat deep seated issues.  Whilst this all sounds horrific to us today, it was an important shift towards making the treatment of mental illness more of a science.

In the mid 1950s, over half of the NHS beds were for mental health and was costing a lot of money.  A report in 1957 drew attention to the outdated asylums and mental hospitals and highlighted the idea of community care.  Around the same time, new drugs were being discovered and created that would control some of the behaviours associated with mental illness that had led to people being sent to asylums.  Note I said control, these were often used to tranquillise patients rather than to cure their illnesses.  That said, in the late 50s and 60s, specific drugs were available to use for specific disorders.  With this huge change, there was less need to confine people and care in the community seemed to be a realistic possibility.

The late 50s and 60s saw the move towards people living in the community and also a better public awareness of the conditions of asylums.  To try and improve standards, open door policies were established and freedom was increased for patients.  There was also the introduction of occupational therapy which showed that people with mental illness weren’t inherently useless…

In the 70s, with the recession, spending on mental health was cut.  Bed by bed, ward by ward, the asylums were closed.  As beds were no longer available, people had to be cared for in the community and on the whole it was charities who picked up the pieces.  The help that was needed to transition patients from asylum to communities never materialised and many people were left facing a new world without support.

Whilst we are still far from perfect in how we, as a society, support and treat people with mental illness, we have come a long way and, as a user, I am very grateful for the help available today.

Resources

A short history of prosthetics

Prosthetics have both a practical purpose and an emotional one, with some people feeling that they help to make them whole.  In ancient Egypt, there is evidence of a woman with a prosthetic toe that is made from wood and leather and some people say wouldn’t have affected her ability to walk.  Those people hypothesise that because they were a sandal wearing culture, she had felt it important to her identity to have the prosthetic.  Others believe that it will have contributed to her ability to walk.  Either way, I think it’s pretty amazing that we have evidence of prosthetics that old, especially given the materials they were generally made with.  In Egypt they were made from fibre and wood and echoed the importance they placed on wholeness.

Another early example is an artificial leg that dates back to about 300 BC.  It was found in Italy and was made of bronze and iron with a wooden core.  It’s thought this was held in place by a leather belt.

Whilst we tend to think of a prosthesis as replacing a limb, they are used to replace other body parts including eyes, breasts and teeth.  And when it comes to teeth we find a lot more literature.  Did you know, for example, that at one time hippo ivory was used to make false teeth as it was stronger than alternative ivory and didn’t yellow so quickly.

Etruscan false teeth from between 8th and 3rd century BCE have been discovered as have sets of false teeth which were made from animal teeth or even human teeth and were connected to intact teeth with a metal band.  Anyway, I don’t like the dentist and all this talk about teeth is too much for me….

Hook hands, peg legs and iron hands were used from roman times to the end of the middle ages with little advancement in technology.  In the 16th century, a hinged arm and a locking leg were invented.  The heavy iron was replaced by a mix of leather, paper and glue tanks for a French locksmith of all people.  We also have to thank watchmakers for contributing to the development of prosthetics as gears and springs were used and needed a careful approach for the intricate parts.

The history of prosthetics is about the history of the prosthetics of the wealthy, or lucky, as is often the case today.  Knights may have been fitted with them because of their status but possibly also because the history of prosthetics has always been intertwined with the history of wars and the soldiers that fight in them.  We know of a roman general that lost his hand and couldn’t fight, but with the aid of an iron prosthetic that could hold his shield, he was able to retain his identity as a general and presumably return to war…

Around 1800, a breakthrough was made in the mechanics of prosthetic limbs by James Potts.  His ‘Anglesey’ leg had articulated parts and used cat-gut tendons to hinge the knee and ankle, creating a walking motion when the toe was lifted.  This design was further developed by adding a heel spring.

The American Civil War saw many many limbs amputated and the US government supplied these soldiers with prosthetics, allowing them to return to work…. So kind!  This vastly increased demand and presumably there were tweaks to design at the same time.  Midway through the war, a new way of attaching the prosthesis was developed that used suction rather than straps.  Another prosthetic that came from the war was a rubber hand which had fingers and was able to connect to an array of attachments.

World War One also saw an increased demand for prosthetics but poor designs and poor fitting led to many going unused.  Common complaints included pain related to friction between prosthesis and the amputated limb and the weight of the prosthetic.

Throughout most of history, prosthetic limbs were wood or metal although I read about one that was made from plaster and animal glue and another that was iron with a wooden core.  More recently, lighter options have become available.  Lightweight aluminium combined with the suction attachment made for more practical and more affordable options and more recently plastics and electronics have followed.  Another big change is around the look of them.  Historically, prosthetic limbs have been designed to replicate the limb and to make other people feel comfortable but in recent decades, there has been a noticeable move towards function over appearance.

In the 1960s, children affected by thalidomide were born with malformed limbs and technological solutions to medical issues were sought.  These came in the form of personalised prosthetics which sped up the advancement of this area.  Gas powered prosthetics were invented to help children and whilst they may have sounded great, and certainly I’m sure some kids found them helpful, others found them difficult and cumbersome.  They required a lot of time away from home to fit them and teach the children how to use them and this obviously had to be repeated as the child grew.  Further, as the child grew up, they wanted to be able to do more with their prosthesis such as feed themselves, write and go to the toilet by themselves.  To be able to do these tasks would make mainstream school accessible.

Gas had been chosen as a power source because batteries at that point were impractical.  As time went on, other ideas were considered and someone thought that a more modular system might work and by this point technology had shrunk making batteries more practical.

In the 1990s, knees that used computer chips were introduced.  The chip controlled the speed and swing of the knee joint and sensors provided feedback.  In 1998 the first electric arm was fitted.  The i-limb was the first prosthetic to have individually powered fingers and gave the user more control and more feedback.  As well as limbs that allow for walking, we have seen limbs that are designed for running and other sports.

Today we are seeing a more personalised approach to prosthetics including the alternative limb project which seeks to go beyond the replacement of a limb and creates imaginative and personalised options.

Links

Rainbows in culture

Part one and two

Having seen in previous blog posts that rainbows are not universally seen positively, it may not be so much of a shock to find that even within Europe, views have been divisive.

“Rainbow superstitions in Britain and Ireland reveal an ambivalence that is difficult to synthesize or explain.”
– The Penguin Guide to the Supersitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud

Modern beliefs tend to be positive – make a wish on a rainbow, the pot of gold etc – but others are darker, with Scotland and Ireland having a pessimistic view.  A rainbow over a house was thought to be a sign of death.  Some people believe that it is unlucky to point at the moon and the stars and this extended to rainbows as well.

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Rainbows are an obvious choice for poetry and it doesn’t take long to find some wonderful lines:

“Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!”
– Lord Byron

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!”
– William Wordsworth

Similarly, rainbows have featured in art for many many years, right back to 2000-4000 BCE.  However, painting a rainbow was not without controversy.  For a lot of history, there was an idea that rainbows were unpaintable and to attempt one “was often a self-conscious act of mastery – or even of hubris – and was usually seen as such by the contemporaries of those artists who dared to try.” (MacCannell)

Flags are another common place to find rainbows, most famously in the LGBT+ flag.  The original flag had eight colours:

  • Hot pink for sexuality
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic and art
  • Indigo for serenity
  • Violet for spirit

Turquoise and hot pink were removed by 1979 for cost reasons.

Rainbows have also been used to symbolise peace and unity.  Since 1921, a rainbow flag has been used to represent the international cooperative movement, with each colour having a meaning.

Today we tend to see rainbows as a scientifically understood phenomena, as awe-inspiring and as kitsch.  To minimise the depth of the rainbow and see them in an emoticon kind of way is to miss out on so much of this incredibly wonder of the natural world.  Rainbows should inspire you to stop, to stare and to wonder.  Perhaps instead of thinking them as light diffracted through a raindrop, we should think of them as miracles drawn on the sky, just for us.  After all, they are uniquely experienced and that is a gift, personalised just for you.

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Resources