The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) has provided orthoses and prostheses for children since the late 1800s. Honorary surgeons would order custom wood, metal and leather splints for patients requiring these devices.

The first half of the 20th century saw epidemics of polio, osteomyelitis and tuberculosis of the bone sweep through communities, leaving children permanently disabled. It can be challenging for us to realise now, just how widespread and disabling these diseases were.

Treatments included fitting children with customised braces and splints made by the hospital’s splint shop, during epidemics volunteers were brought in to help splint technicians meet demand. These technicians were exceptionally skilled and created finely crafted products.

Widespread immunisation against these crippling diseases led to a decline in the need for splints; from the 1970s the splint shop began experimenting with new technologies and materials, including plastics.

The splint shop relaunched as the Orthotic Department in 1976 when the Lincoln School of Health Sciences in Carlton launched one of the first orthotic and prosthetic tertiary courses in the world, and then The Hugh Williamson Orthotic Prosthetic Unit in 1989.


The Orthotic and Prosthetic Department’s largest patient group is children with cerebral palsy, who have a wide variance in physical disability level. This can range from children who run around all day with their friends, to those who are completely dependent on motorised wheelchairs for mobility. The department also treats children with a wide range of other aetiologies, from babies with club feet, dislocated hips, or heads with flat spots, to teenagers with scoliosis and limb deficiency.

Orthotic interventions can significantly change the quality of life for many of these children and young people, by enabling them to participate in everyday activities with their peers and families.

Advancements in materials and technologies have transformed the department from what it once was – wooden prosthetics have been replaced by prosthetic arms with microprocessor-controlled fingers and carbon fibre sockets.

With thanks to Rod Lawlor, Orthotic and Prosthetic Unit Manager. Contemporary images courtesy of Alvin Aquino.