On June 1, 1861, 18-year-old engineering student James Edward Hanger left his family, forgoing his studies at Washington College (now Washington & Lee University), to join his brothers in the Confederate Army. On June 3, less than two days after enlisting, a cannonball tore through his leg early in the Battle of Philippi. Becoming the first amputee of the Civil War, the young Hanger survived an excruciating battlefield amputation necessary to save his life by Dr. James D. Robinson.
“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!”A prisoner of war until August 1861, upon returning home to Churchville, Virginia, Hanger requested solitude. His family assumed he was writhing in despair; however, unbeknownst to anyone else, he immediately began work on what would prove to be a revolutionizing prosthetic solution.Whittled from barrel staves, the “Hanger Limb” was first worn by Hanger 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.“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,” Hanger said.
In the same year, Hanger secured two patents from the Confederate government and was commissioned to develop prosthetic limbs for veteran soldiers. In 1891, Hanger was granted a U.S. patent for his prosthetic innovation.By the time of his death in June 1919, the J.E. Hanger Company had branches in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, London, and Paris.Today, as a national $1 billion+ company, Hanger, Inc. still honors and abides by the tenets articulated by its founder, James Edward Hanger: “There is sound logic in our determination not to extend our activities beyond our capacity. If we have learned no other lesson, we are fully convinced of the wisdom of the policy we have followed all these years, never to allow our output to grow faster than our standards of quality and individual attention will allow.”