When we think about Ancient Egypt, we might well believe that injuries such as losing a big toe would cripple a person that existed then for life. Not so. Research has found that the Ancient Egyptians made wearable and comfortable prostheses as far back as 600 BC. Two prosthetic big toes, one still attached to a mummy in a museum, have been studied at the University of Manchester. The results show that they were worn and helped their owners walk. One is a three-part toe – comprised of wood, leather and a hinge – housed in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. The other, called the Greville Chester big toe, was made of cartonnage – a papier maché type substance – and is displayed at the British Museum.
Dr. Jacky Finch, from the University of Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, recruited two volunteers who had lost their big toes to try on exact replicas of the two Egyptian artificial toes and wear them with Egyptian type sandals. One of the volunteers had no trouble walking well with either toe, while both found the Cairo toe very comfortable.
“To be classed as true prosthetic devices any replacement must satisfy several criteria,” said Dr. Finch. “The material must withstand bodily forces so that it does not snap or crack with use. Proportion is important and the appearance must be sufficiently lifelike as to be acceptable to both the wearer and those around them. The stump must also be kept clean, so it must be easy to take on and off. But most importantly it must assist walking.”
Modern medicine is often thought to have started in the 19th century, at least in terms of a working understanding of the human body and surgery, yet this isn’t strictly true. The Egyptians had long refined surgical interventions such as trepanning (drilling burr holes in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain), and as we see here, also devised prosthetic devices for patients.
“The wear on the Greville Chester toe and the important design features on the Cairo toe led me to speculate that these toes were perhaps worn by their owners in life and not simply attached to the foot during mummification for religious or ritualistic reasons,” said Dr Finch. “However, until we were able to test replicas of both toes using volunteers under laboratory conditions, it remained uncertain if they could indeed help their owners to walk.
“My findings strongly suggest that both of these designs were capable of functioning as replacements for the lost toe and so could indeed be classed as prosthetic devices. If that is the case then it would appear that the first glimmers of this branch of medicine should be firmly laid at the feet of the ancient Egyptians.”