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Out of Tragedy Comes Innovation

December 14, 2011 - Jodi Burnsworth
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“I cannot look back upon those days in the hospital without a shudder,” Hanger said. “No one can know what such a loss means unless he has suffered a similar catastrophe. In the twinkling of an eye, life’s fondest hopes seemed dead. I was the prey of despair. What could the world hold for a maimed, crippled man!”

James Edward Hanger was born to William Alexander Hanger and Eliza Hogshed Hanger on his father’s plantation, Mount Hope, in Churchville, Virginia. In 1859, he enrolled at Washington College (now Washington & Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia to study engineering. At 18-years-old the sophomore left school to join the newly formed Churchville Cavalry, under the command of Captain Franklin Sterrett. Hanger left Churchville with an ambulance corps carrying supplies for the Confederacy, traveling to Philippi, Virginia.

Hanger arrived on June 2, 1861, and after enlisting, spent the night in the hayloft of the Garrett Johnson barn. He was awakened by the first blasts of cannon fire from the Federals. The third fire, a six-pound solid shot, crashed through the barn, struck a post, and ricocheted upward, shattering his left leg. He remained in the stable until he was discovered, about four hours after he was wounded. He was carried to the Philippi Methodist Episcopal Church where Union Dr. James Robinson of the 16th Ohio Infantry cut off his battered leg about seven inches below the hip – without the benefit of anesthesia. Less than two days after leaving home, Hanger had become the first amputee of the Civil War.

A prisoner of war until August 1861, Hanger then returned home to Churchville, Virginia and requested solitude. His family assumed he was in despair; however, he actually began work immediately on what would prove to be a revolutionizing prosthetic solution.

Dissatisfied with both the fit and function of his above-the-knee prosthesis, which was basically a wooden peg, Hanger designed a new prosthesis using whittled barrel staves and metal. His design used rubber bumpers rather than standard catgut tendons and featured hinges at both the knee and foot. He first wore the “Hanger Limb” in November 1861 as he descended the steps of his home, to the astonishment of his family who didn’t know what he was doing while locked away for months in his upstairs bedroom. The device worked well, and the Virginia government commissioned him to manufacture the “Hanger Limb” for other wounded soldiers.

Manufacturing operations for the newly formed J.E. Hanger, Inc. were established in Staunton and Richmond. Hanger was awarded his first patent for the prosthesis, number 155, from the U.S. Patent Office in March 1863. It has received numerous additional patents for improvements and special devices.

In 1873 Hanger married Nora McCarthy in Richmond and had two daughters and six sons. The family moved to Washington, D.C. in the 1880s, and their home near Logan Circle still stands today. All of Hanger’s sons worked in the family business as adults.

Hanger retired from active management in 1905, but retained the title of president. In 1906, he moved the company’s headquarters to Washington, D.C. He traveled to Europe in 1915 to observe the latest techniques of European prosthetics firsthand. As a result, the company received contracts with both England and France during and after World War I.

In 1915, his sons divided J.E. Hanger, Inc. into four separate companies, with each operating in a different region of the country. At the time of Hanger’s death in 1919, the companies had branches in Atlanta, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, London and Paris.

Significant technological advances in the U.S. prosthetic industry were largely absent in the years leading up to World War II. These veterans demanded better prosthetic options, and so in 1946, the federal government began providing funds for research and development in prosthetics. J.E. Hanger, Inc. was able to introduce new prosthetic socket designs made from improved materials such as thermosetting resins.

Around this same time, the orthotics industry (braces and supports) sought to combine with the prosthetics industry. Thus, in 1950, the American Orthotics and Prosthetics Association was formed, and that brought a new emphasis on the education and certification of clinical practitioners. By the mid-1950s, J.E. Hanger, Inc. had added orthotic services to its business and had expanded to 50 offices in U.S. and 25 in Europe.

Technological improvements were few in the 1960s and 1970s, but the 1980s marked the beginning of advanced technological development that continues today. J.E. Hanger, Inc. is known today as Hanger Orthopedic Group and has more than 600 patient care centers, six distribution sites, four manufacturing plants and 1,000 employees in 30 states. In 1999, Hanger Orthopedic Group bought its biggest competitor and the industry leader; also, Fortune magazine ranked Hanger Orthopedic Group as 79th on its list of One Hundred Fastest-Growing Companies. As of 2009, Hanger Orthopedic Group was composed of four wholly owned subsidiaries that serve different segments of the orthotics and prosthetics industry.

Today, Hanger Orthopedic Group celebrates the sesquicentennial of its founder’s remarkable work. So as you’re passing thru Philippi, stop by the Blue and Gray Park next to the covered bridge to learn more about the experience this 18-year-old engineering student had and what inspired Hanger to create the company that is presently helping more than 650,000 patients annually.

“Today I am thankful for what seemed then to me nothing but a blunder of fate, but which was to prove instead a great opportunity.” – James E. Hanger

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