For 600,000 U.S. Amputees Seattle Foot Can Put Bounce Back into the Stride

UPDATED 05/13/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/13/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

It wasn't as instantly bracing as a bridge or as impressive as a housing project, but right up there among 12 other winners of the first Presidential Awards for Design Excellence earlier this year was the Seattle Foot, a prosthetic device representing no less a quantum leap for the nation's more than 600,000 leg amputees. As University of Washington Professor Jim Clark, a 39-year-old amputee, put it, "The first jump I made with the new Foot was like a dream; instead of the floor beating me to a pulp, I felt as though I was springing on a diving board. That night, I went dancing."

The Seattle Foot is the brainchild of orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ernest M. Burgess, 73, and Don Poggi, a 55-year-old Boeing engineer. Earlier foot prosthetics hadn't advanced far from Long John Silver's peg leg; the major innovation had been shaping the wood into a sort of shoe last to allow matching footgear. There were no moving parts, no springs, nothing to approximate the shock-absorbing functions of the human ankle. The old models required the wearer to use the upper leg muscles to lift the foot off the ground and, essentially, throw it ahead for the next step. The result was a decidedly telltale lurch.

The Seattle Foot, by contrast, has a polyurethane exterior resembling a foot right down to the sole and toes. Better still, it acts like a foot. It absorbs gravitational energy through the action of a cantilevered plastic spring keel (buffered by a mesh pad). It stores the energy briefly, then feeds it back in the form of lift and thrust. The wearer can assume an almost normal walking and running gait.

Burgess first became active in the problems of amputees as an army surgeon in World War II; later soldiers returning from Vietnam intensified his efforts. "The amputee veterans coming home tended to be very young, and some of them were having a very bad time," he says. "We wanted to improve their recreational opportunities." In 1964, under the aegis of the Veterans Administration, Burgess established the Prosthetics Research Study in Seattle to improve design and fabrication of artificial limbs. In 1978 Boeing aerospace engineers developed a functioning model of the Foot, but the early prototypes proved too costly for market production. That was when Burgess contracted Model & Instrument Works, Inc., Don Poggi's small firm.

By April 1983 a final model was completed and gained instant acceptance. Current Seattle Foot users include Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey (a Vietnam amputee), Ted Kennedy Jr. and Jeff Keith, the Boston College graduate student who completed an eight-month run across America for the American Cancer Society using four Seattle Feet. Says Dolores Malchow, a 40-year-old mother of two, now able to play tennis, skate and skip rope with her 12-year-old daughter, "It permits a return to a life-style awfully close to normal; better, in some ways, because of the deeper appreciation for things you are able to do."

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