History Tidbit – 152nd Anniversary of Federal Prosthetic Benefits for Veterans

One hundred and fifty-two (152) years ago, Congress authorized the first government-provided prosthetics for disabled soldiers of the Union Army.

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During the second year of the American Civil War, on July 16, 1862, Congress authorized $15,000 for the purchase of artificial limbs for soldiers and seamen disabled in service of the United States (Union forces), to be expended under direction of the War Department’s Surgeon-General. The following year, this benefit was expanded to include volunteer soldiers and, in 1866, a payment was added for veterans’ transportation back and forth to obtain their prosthetics.

After the Civil War, there was an unprecedented number of war veterans with amputated limbs and many of them entered the new National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA origins), established by Congress in 1865. By 1868, the Central Branch of the National Home (now known as Dayton VAMC) housed 1,249 disabled veterans of whom 114 had only one arm and 159 had only one leg. According to the annual report, “a greater number of one-armed and disabled men had never been assembled in a single institution before.” 

On June 17, 1870, Congress expanded the benefit to include replacement prosthetics every 5 years and gave veterans the option to take the monetary value, in lieu of a prosthetic. At the time, the value of an artificial leg was $75; an arm, foot, or apparatus for resection was valued at $50. Two weeks later, on June 30, 1870, the prosthetics benefit was extended to “all officers, soldiers, seamen, and marines disabled in the military or naval service of the United States.”

After World War I, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance (BWRI) and U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) provided prosthetics to World War I veterans, while the War Department continued to issue prosthetics to veterans of earlier wars. When the BWRI and PHS were merged in 1921 to create the Veterans Bureau, prosthetics for World War I veterans were transferred there, while prosthetics for other veterans remained under the War Department.

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When the Veterans Administration was established on July 21, 1930, prosthetics for World War I veterans were transferred at that time. Four months later, Executive Order 5476 was signed on November 4, 1930 and transferred prosthetics under the War Department to the Veterans Administration: veterans’ prosthetics were finally housed under one administrative roof.

As medical innovations evolved and became more research-based, so did interest in developing more effective prosthetics. Dr. Paul Magnuson, who later became VA’s Chief Medical Director, was very active in the development of prosthetics and rehabilitative medicine after World War I. In 1945, the “G.I. Bill” continued the government’s provision of prosthetics, but also mandated training for veterans on how to use their prosthetic devices. Later that year, a Prosthetics section was established under the Veterans Administration. In July 1947, the Prosthetic Devices program was renamed as VA’s Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service and by 1950, a million dollars was authorized for prosthetics research.

Prosthetics have been a continuous part of U.S. veterans benefits since 1862 and, today, VA remains at the forefront of prosthetic development and technology to improve mobility and quality of life for the veterans who need them.

Photos:– top –unknown Civil War soldier with leg prosthetic (Library of Congress); bottom – unknown World War II with hand/arm prosthetic (NIH-NLM)

Story: VA Historian

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