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Page last updated at 14:42 GMT, Friday, 21 May 2010 15:42 UK
History of the World: Cobbler invented prosthetic limbs
Artificial hand
By 1903, Gillingham had treated over 7,000 patients

One of the most important medical advances of the 19th Century was invented by a Chard cobbler.

James Gillingham made a prosthetic arm from leather.

He made the artificial limb after he met a gamekeeper who had to have his arm amputated at the shoulder.

William Singleton, who lost his arm after a canon he was firing went off causing the ramrod to go through his shoulder, said surgeons in London told him there was nothing they could do.

But Mr Gillingham offered to have a go for free as he wanted the challenge.

He then made an arm out of leather which was a bit like a leather tube.

Derek Warren from Chard Museum said: "He did it, he made it and the doctor was absolutely amazed.

"He said 'you should take it to London and show the surgeons up there' and they were astounded.

"Nothing in British surgery could compete with that and he had a secret formula for making leather supple, moulding it to the shape of a leg and then hardening it. It was this innovation which made Gillingham so unusual."

Dr Elizabeth Hurren, a senior lecturer in history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University said: "The important thing is the fit, and this is what a shoemaker understands how important it is for your shoes to fit properly so he thought 'actually, people aren't making enough of an individual fit and I can do that'.

"That was a really important technological, medical breakthrough."

Mr Warren added: "Gillingham altered lives because he always maintained the fitting was always as important as the limb.

"By doing so, he emphasised the medical profession's obligations to the patient rather than to themselves."

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