We’ve heard what others say about getting out of the kitchen if we can’t stand the heat. But, what if you have no choice but to live with the heat? Are you going to stay and endure a lifetime of torture? Or, will you fashion something that will make you comfortable, regardless of an unlikely environment? Most would submit to their sorry fate, but not Van.
He was studying to become a broadcaster; after the accident, though, he decided to pursue a career in prosthetics due to his immediate needs. There was nothing more frustrating than being confined in one place. Even simple tasks, such as going up and down stairs, became chores for Van. He didn’t know how else to cope. So, he figured he might as well do something about his plight and, in the process, help those whose lives have been hindered by amputation.
The result of his hard work is “Flex-Foot,” an award-winning invention that helps amputees get their lives back. The Flex-Foot is light and durable and, despite not looking or feeling like a real leg, it allows the wearer to jump, run, and engage in other activities he/she did in the past. To say it was revolutionary would be an understatement; for amputees, it was like living again after dying. And it all came to pass because of Van’s persistence; his steady belief that life can be normal again; his refusal to accept loss.
A Young Inventor
Born in 1954 in the countryside many miles outside of Chicago, Van was used to playing alone and allowing his imagination to entertain him. He lived with his parents, one older brother and one younger sister. Some of his happier childhood memories include the times he would wade in the ponds and catch frogs and crayfish. He was a happy boy, despite being bit of a loner.
Van had a flair for creating things since he was young. As a child, he would build multi-tiered tree houses out of indigenous and reclaimed materials. His parents did not limit their son’s imagination and allowed him to “be a child.” He also constructed toy boats and had a great time going through self-made tunnels. He was a handful! Those memories proved quite telling of what awaited the curious young inventor.
When Van was in grade school, he and his classmates were asked to fashion a creative costume for Halloween. His circle of friends decided to be a dragon, but they did not let him join. Instead of moping, he thought long and hard of a cool costume and finally settled on wearing a mask he created himself. He used potatoes for its eyes and nose; the other parts were made of papier-mâché, wax and clay. To make it scary, he used pins for the teeth. Although it achieved its intended purpose, its heaviness made it almost unbearable to wear.
That was the first lesson he learned about inventing. He advises young people to build/create things that they themselves will be willing to wear – “you become your invention.” So, figuratively and literally, you have to live with what you made. He wore the mask and bore its weight, just so he could show it around.
His next unforgettable childhood invention was a spear. He scavenged for materials from his father’s toolbox and found a screw driver, which he attached to his mom’s broom handle. He then tested it with surprising success, and watched it fly gracefully through the air. When it finally landed, he rushed to it to find a big, fat farm mouse pinned down by the spear. No matter how much energy and time had gone into his spear, he left it on the ground and ran home.
What most people did not know was that Van got his creativity from his father, an inventor in his own right. His father worked for a computer company that developed the first working operation system of the “early computer age.” Understanding his son’s passion for creating things, Van’s father allowed him to do what he wanted and always supported his building endeavors.
The Accident that Changed His Life
Soon, however, Van outgrew his love for inventing, and practicality got the better of him when he decided to sign up for a Broadcasting course at Arizona State University. Such as when he was younger, his parents did not meddle with his decision.
During his free time, he ran, hiked and skied. He was an active person who valued physical fitness and rarely stayed indoors.
One beautiful day in 1976, he went out to water-ski; he was then in his third year as a broadcasting student. Little did he know, it would be the day that would change his life forever. A motorboat ran him over, causing the propeller to slice off his left leg from the knee down.
He awoke from a long sleep in a hospital bed with little memory of the accident. From what he could remember, though, he knew he was no longer the person he used to be. He slowly looked down and saw a bandaged thigh and nothing where his lower leg used to be. At that very moment, his father entered the room, looked at his missing leg and left without saying a word. Van knew his father was overcome with grief.
Van was not sure how to react, either. Feeling numb, he tried to imagine what sort of life awaited him. Days later, he was given a 50-dollar foot, the standard prosthetic of the time. It looked dead to him; it was made of rubber and wood and provided little help. Plus, it was as heavy as a bowling ball. After a number of therapy sessions, Van was sent home with the heavy prosthetic leg.
Van tried to live normally, but there was no faking his inner grief, and those closest to him were well aware. His girlfriend’s father told him he had no choice but to live with it.
It was not long before Van decided to shift courses. He left Arizona State University for the Northwestern University Medical School Prosthetic-Orthotic Center, where he pursued a career in prosthetics. Even as a student, Van exhibited a rare determination to revolutionize prosthetics. He would spend hours at a time in his studies, and was not in want of mentors. Professor John Michaels and Dudley Childress of Northwestern Rehabilitation Center became his inspirations; they mentored him and encouraged his passion.
Creating the Flex-Foot
When Van graduated in 1981, he worked at the Center for Biomedical Design at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, which was well-known for its prosthetic arms. He was assigned to the “socket and attachment” division. Aside from his day job, Van was also busy designing his own prosthetic leg.
He observed and did extensive research. Looking closely at a cheetah’s leg positions whenever the animal leaps, he discovered that the legs’ shape is primarily responsible. In search of material that was both light and durable, he discovered carbon graphite, which is lighter than aluminum but stronger than steel. Needless to say, it was the ideal material he was hoping to find.
So, he took it upon himself to begin making his own foot out of carbon graphite. Because he had no amenities, however, he couldn’t maximize the design and the foot would easily break. Feeling desperate, he was led to Dale Abildskov, a Fiber Science specialist, who helped him design the first Flex-Foot in a week’s time. Van sprinted down the stairs to the delight of his parents and, the very next day, handed in his irrevocable resignation.
He perfected the design by wearing the prosthetic legs and breaking them. Dale and Van founded “Flex-Foot, Inc.” in 1983 along with another partner: Dale’s boss, Bob Barisford. They were later joined by Bob Fosberg from Harvard Business School.
Soon, the four decided to sell Flex-Foot to “Ossur,” a company based in Iceland. Van then used the money he received to set up “Second Wind,” a non-profit organization, in 1999. Out of that came “Project Concern,” an initiative that creates economical prosthetics for those who have lost their legs to landmines. Van knows what it’s like to live on the sidelines, and that no one deserves restricted existence:
“I’m much more than just an inventor, and to be able to have the confidence and the space to realize the big picture and to be, you know, amidst that big picture, allows the space, once again, for ideas really to come across.” (SOURCE: Smithsonian)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Amputee Coalition of America
- International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics
- Second Wind
- Project Concern
Awards and Achievements
- 1983: Founded “Flex-Foot, Inc.”
- 1984: His company “Flex-Foot, Inc.” began selling his designs
- 1998: Received the “Brian Blatchford Memorial Prize” from the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics
- 1999: Established “Second Wind,” a non-profit organization
- 2008: Nominated for “European Inventor of the Year”
The New York Times (A Personal Call to a Prosthetic Invention)
Wikipedia [Van Phillips(inventor)]
MIT.edu (Inventor of the Week Archive)
Smithsonian (Artificial Parts: Van Phillips)
One Life Magazine (Van Phillips and the Cheetah Prosthetic Leg: The Next Step in Human Evolution?)
Smithsonian (Van Philips)
EPO.org (Runaway Success)
Prezi (Van Phillips)
Smithsonian (From the Collections: Van Phillips)
Smithsonian (Van Philips video transcript)