When I first started at the museum I spent a lot of time opening cabinets and drawers to check out this remarkable collection that is now under my care. There are many impressive artefacts, but this one really struck a chord with me.
I opened a drawer to find what appears to be a simple box (carefully constructed by skilled conservators!). A closer look at the photo label revealed this:
It’s someone’s leg! I was a bit shocked, I did not expect to find a prosthesis in the HBC collection. I immediately went to our database to find out more.
As it turns out, Tullauhiu was an Inuit hunter who lost his leg to a polar bear. John Ross (yes, THE John Ross who went in search of the Northwest Passage) ordered the Victory‘s carpenter to fit Tullauhiu with a wooden leg. The carpenter apparently worked with the ship’s surgeon and Tullauhiu was fitted with a prosthetic leg on January 15, 1830.
Constructed from wood, leather, iron nails, sheet copper, and copper nails (hence the green-ish tinge) Tullauhiu was given a new lease on life. What prompted John Ross, on his second Arctic voyage, to do this?
Ross briefly mentions this event in his 1835 Narrative of a Second Voyage in Search of a NorthWest Passage (this excerpt is from page 5). Apparently the event is also discussed in Farley Mowat’s Ordeal By Ice (1993: pg 228-236) but I have yet to snag a copy to see for myself.
Perhaps it really was just a simple act of kindness, or maybe there was more to the story (page 52 of Ross’s narrative alluded to something). Either way, looking at this prosthetic leg in a box gets me thinking about what this leg meant for Tullauhiu.
That’s what I love about my job, it’s not just the material ‘things’ in the collection, but the stories behind them and thinking about what these items meant for the people who made and used them.
*UPDATE: The plot thickens on this interesting artefact, stayed tuned for part 2!*