A Long Tradition of Medical Innovation: The Artificial Limb Industry in Hennepin County

 

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Image from HHM Collections

Minnesota’s booming medical device industry can trace its roots to artificial limbs. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Twin Cities became a hub of prosthetics companies. The industry in Hennepin County initially sprang up to accommodate local patrons but eventually became the leading artificial limb manufacturer in the United States.  

The need for prosthesis manufacturing companies in Minneapolis arose as it grew into the flour milling capital of the world. Injuries caused by machinery, falling debris, and even the occasional fire, often resulted in limb amputation of flour mill employees. The rising number of amputations necessitated an industry where prostheses could be designed, manufactured, and improved. Northwestern Artificial Limb Company was founded in 1860, making it one of the first prosthetics firms in Minneapolis. Northwestern manufactured the limb seen above, which is held in the collection at Hennepin History Museum. 

It was not long before several other companies sprang up and created an entire industry. With the field of prosthetics wellestablished in Minneapolis, it is not surprising that when the nation began to see an increase in traumatic injuries, it turned to the Twin Cities. The years after the Civil War saw a large demand for artificial limbs from veterans. Then the expansion of the rail system and railroad workers’ injuries created the next major demand for prostheses. This was followed by World War I, which yet again sent soldiers home missing limbs. When automobiles and the inevitable rise in automobile accidents created another increase in severe injuries, Minneapolis was already a leader in the field and was producing artificial limbs for the whole country.  

Hennepin County remains one of the largest producers of artificial limbs in the United States. Some of the original companies still exist today. The Winkley Artificial Limb Company (pictured below) was incorporated in 1889, and five generations later the company is still family owned and operated as Winkley Orthotics and Prosthetics. Boasting a long history that spans nearly 160 years, the local prosthetics industry continues to innovate the field to this day.  

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Image from HHM Archives

 

Written by Alyssa Thiede 

Sources: 

“Around the City,” Minneapolis Tribune, March 15, 1889. Star Tribune Archive.  

“Minneapolis Supplies World with Artificial Limbs,” Minneapolis Tribune, June 29, 1902. Star Tribune Archive. 

Fuller, Jim. “Replacing the Irreplaceable: Twin Cities is a Center for Artificial Arms and Legs,” Star Tribune, April 4, 1991. Star Tribune Archive. 

 

This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.

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