The Hand of Corporal Coles

In Adelaide in April 1842, Corporal John Coles was on North Terrace conducting a military salute for the celebration of the Duke of Cornwall’s birth when an accident occurred. When priming the canon, the gunpowder exploded, destroying all four fingers of the Corporals right hand and the top of his left forefinger. The Colonial Surgeon James Nash completed only minor amputation of his fingers as Coles was anxious to keep his hand.

In 1844, surgeon Robert Norman arrived in Adelaide. Aside from medicine, Norman was interested in carving and was known to produce objects from ivory and bone. For Coles, he created what is believed to be the first prosthetic hand in South Australia.

Robert Norman.

The hand was completed in 1845. It included four fingers made of whale bone with detailed nails and joints. Strings and pulleys worked into the joints were attached to a ring on the Corporals remaining thumb which allowed him to bend the fingers. A report in The Observer at the time claimed the hand was so well designed it allowed the wearer to deal cards and lift wine glasses. In any case, the prosthesis was efficient; Coles used the hand for the remainder of his life.

The hand, showing pulleys and strings.

The hand was paid for by Coles’ friend and colleague George Grey, the Governor of South Australia. A silver plaque on the back of the hand reads ‘Presented by His Excellency Governor Grey – Robert Norman Inventor.’

The plaque attached to the hand.

In 2015, American designer Ivan Owen created the world’s first 3D-printed hand prosthesis using details of the pulley systems from Corporal Coles’ hand. Ivan made his designs free to access which has enabled over 1,600 people to date to receive prosthetic hands at a low cost.

Written by Jasmin Clark, CALHN Health Museum.