Bioethics Blogs

Cassandra Crawford’s Phantom Limb: Amputation, Embodiment, and Prosthetic Technology by Seth Messinger

Phantom Limb: Amputation, Embodiment, and Prosthetic Technology

by Cassandra S. Crawford

NYU Press, 2014, 314 pages

The title of this important book gives only the slightest hint of the extraordinarily complex account that Crawford has produced about the biopolitics of limb absence and other forms of acquired limb loss, the meaning of phantom sensation and phantom pain, and the work of scientific knowledge-making in constructing experience and persons. Crawford organizes her book both as a history of biomedicine’s overall construction of limb loss and as a series of disciplinary encounters between different medical specialties struggling over how to delimit and explain the experience of limb loss.

In the United States, amputation and phantom sensation became a concern to biomedicine as a result of the mass injuries and limb loss sustained by soldiers during the Civil War. This period produced one of the first large-scale attempts to offer prosthetic limbs to people with limb loss, and as the manufacture and utilization of prosthetics increased, an interest in the biomedical needs and challenges experienced by prosthetic users also grew rapidly. This was also a period of increased attention to neuroscience and the linkages between nerves and the self (Phineas Gage’s accident with a railroad spike happened in 1848).

Silas Weir Mitchell, an American physician and neuroscientist, treated Civil War casualties and was the first to seriously study the phenomena of phantom limb sensation. He prepared detailed reports about sensations experienced by persons with limb loss and the potential clinical effects those sensations might have on prosthetic utilization. From this initial clinical attention Crawford explores how different clinical specialties have constructed limb loss and sensations associated with it.

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