By Suzanne Norquist
What do bark, eggs, and sand have in common?
They are all precursors to modern casts. Before plaster casts and fiberglass splints, man had to get creative in treating broken bones.
A few months ago, I slipped on the ice and broke my ankle. I headed to the emergency room, fully expecting a heavy plaster cast. Instead, a woman whose T-shirt read “Nurse” set me up with a fiberglass splint. After a couple of weeks, I graduated to a walking boot. Now, I’m back to normal—without the use of any plaster at all.
Until this incident, I hadn’t thought much about the medicine involved. How did man come up with the idea of using splints and casts to treat broken bones? What was used before plaster and fiberglass? I did a little research.
Apparently, people have supported broken limbs with stiff materials since antiquity. In 3000 BC, Egyptians used bark wrapped in linen to immobilize the limb. Although plaster existed, they didn’t use it in medicine. Instead, they covered temple walls with it.
Ancient Hindus used bamboo splints, while Greeks relied on waxes and resins to create rigid bandages. Shoshone Indians made do with hard strips of rawhide.
By 970 AD, doctors experimented with plaster concoctions to stiffen bandages. Those in Arabia combined lime derived from sea shells and albumen from egg whites. The Spanish used clay-gum mixtures, flour, and egg whites.
Not much changed until the 1800s, when military doctors developed better techniques. Some focused on materials that would firm up bandages, while others considered the whole process. Physicians started using narrow wooden boxes filled with moist sand. Not only did it immobilize the limb but the whole person, confining them to bed. Later, plaster of paris replaced the use of sand.
Unfortunately, the plaster-filled box didn’t reduce the bulk or heaviness, and it left the patient immobile. So, doctors opted to dip linen strips in plaster and layer them over the broken limb. The strips hardened much quicker than the liquid poured in a box, providing less bulk.
Through the 1800s and the early 1900s, medical professionals experimented with different kinds of splint and cast materials. These included wool-wrapped cardboard splints, bandages soaked in starch, celluloid, and galvanized wire.
In the 1930s, Germany produced the first commercial plaster bandages called Cellona.
Fiberglass showed up as a casting material in the 1970s. This would explain the fiberglass splint strapped to my leg in the emergency room. I’m sure it weighed less than a plaster cast and could be molded to my ankle. And I imagine it was much more comfortable than the wood and cloth of ancient Egypt.
Humankind has come a long way in managing broken bones.
"Mending Sarah’s Heart" in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
"Mending Sarah’s" Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?