Darwin DeForrest Douglas and the Government Contract

By , May 8, 2018

In 1862, surgeon general William Hammond convened a medical board to discuss the question of providing prosthetic limbs to Union soldiers who had undergone amputation after being wounded. The number of these men was increasing quickly and, if nothing else, Hammond wanted to get those who could be rehabilitated for military life back to the front. Men who would be demobilized back to civilian life also required support since a missing arm or leg could incapacitate a man who had been an active farmer or mechanic.

By the beginning of the Civil War, there were several well-known limb manufacturers in the United States, mostly along the Eastern seaboard. Benjamin Franklin Palmer had one of the first full-scale manufacturing plants and more than one of his workmen, including William Selpho, Douglas Bly, E.D. Hudson, Benjamin Jewett, and Darwin DeForrest Douglass, had gone on to create businesses of their own. The designs, including Palmer’s own, were mostly variations on a model that had been created in the early years of the nineteenth century in Britain for veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Arguments between makers were heated, however, as each tried to defend his own design as unique and, of course, better than the competition.

Hammond’s board asked several major limb manufacturers, including B.F. Palmer but not Douglass, to submit limbs for inspection. The board then planned to select the best and work out some plan whereby limbs and soldiers could be brought together. The main difficulties, it soon became clear, would be money and time: who was going to pay for the limb? and how much time should the soldier have to spend in getting it? Most limb manufacturers, including Palmer and Douglass, advised that limbs needed personal fitting — it wasn’t simply a matter of shipping off two dozen medium-size legs to a hospital and letting the staff hand them out.

The medical board never decided upon a single supplier and the Union government never signed a contract with a particular manufacturer for supplies of limbs. Instead, suppliers were given charge of particular geographic areas and soldiers in need of limbs were supposed to apply to their closest hospital. In practice, of course, this might mean a man would have to travel 200 miles roundtrip in order to get a limb — and the government stipend for prostheses did not cover travel or housing while waiting to be fitted or the multiple trips that might be necessary in order to adjust a new prosthesis properly.

Indeed, the stipend itself could be part of the problem. Since there was no official contract to control how much manufacturers could charge for a limb, just an unofficial “agreement,” several manufacturers, including Palmer and Selpho, were accused of price-gouging. Selpho, in fact, was firmly rebuked by Surgeon General Hammond more than once for taking money from soldiers over what was allowed by the government stipend.

Douglass, on the other hand, managed to benefit from the unofficial nature of the government arrangement without directly imposing on the soldier. Since there was no official government supplier, he argued that men coming to him to be fitted were simply exercising their freedom of choice in an open marketplace and the government should reimburse him as promised. However, it may also have been because he sold so few limbs in comparison to suppliers like Palmer, Selpho, and Jewett, that whatever price-fixing Douglass indulged in was not worth tracking down.

~For more, see Guy R. Hasegawa’s Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artifical Limbs (2012) and the D. DeForrest Douglass papers.

Leave a Reply

 

Panorama Theme by Themocracy