Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Notable achievements by people who have lost an upper limb

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel

Working for the last fifty years in rehabilitation medicine and playing the drums in two jazz bands, I have always looked for stories of people who, in spite of chronic illness or disability, have accomplished much in art, music, politics, or science.1-3 Some of these include those who have achieved without the use of one or both upper limbs.

There is the amazing story of Aron Lee Ralston (born 1975), an American mountaineer and mechanical engineer who survived an accident by cutting off part of his own right arm. On April 26, 2003, during a solo descent of Bluejohn Canyon in southeastern Utah, he dislodged a boulder, pinning his right wrist to the side of the canyon wall. After five days, he had to break his forearm, amputate it with a dull pocket knife to break free, make his way through the rest of the canyon, rappel down a 65-foot (20 m) drop, and hike seven miles (11 km) to safety.4

Some upper limb amputees have left their mark on military history. The noble German Gottfried von Berlichingen (1480–1562) fought with an artificial hand.5 Lord Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) fought in many battles after losing his right arm.6 The Jewish hero Joseph Trumpeldor (1880–1920) continued to successfully shoot a rifle after losing his left arm to a battle wound.7 And finally, Claus von Stauffenberg (1907–1944) a German army officer who was executed by the Nazis for his failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair, had lost one hand and two fingers on the other hand.8

There are a few notable one-hand pianists. The older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961), was an Austrian- American pianist in spite of losing his right hand when he was injured and captured by the Russians during World War I; “he devised novel techniques, including pedal and hand movement combinations that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist.”9

Famous composers wrote special compositions for him, including Maurice Ravel, Josef Labor, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Alexandre Tansman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev, Karl Weigl, Franz Schmidt, Sergei Bortkiewicz, and Richard Strauss. Although the Wittgenstein family had converted to Christianity three generations before Paul’s birth, all of them were regarded as Jews by the Nazis, and they moved to the UK or to the US.

Another musician who lost his hand during WWI was the Czech Otakar Hollmann (1894–1967). Originally a violinist, he switched to piano after his injury—”He was notable in the repertoire for left-handed pianists. Although little known now, he was considered second only to Paul Wittgenstein in the promotion of the left-hand repertoire.”10 Perhaps experts in the history of music can teach us to what extent phantom pain, which occurs in most people who have had a traumatic amputation, influenced these musicians during their rehearsals and performances.

Post-traumatic phantom limb pain has also affected famous writers.7 The book La Main Coupée (The Severed Hand), made its Swiss-French author famous. Blaise Cendrars (Frédéric Louis Sauser, 1887–1961) lost his right arm during WWI. Later on, in Occupied France, he was listed as a Jewish writer of “French Expression” but survived, suffering “from [phantom limb pain] until the end of his life and his literary work and personal correspondence are peppered with references to them.”11

Other notable achievements by people with conditions other than amputation include the literary achievements of the French poet-philosopher Joë Bousquet (1897–1950), who sustained a spinal cord injury during WWI.12 Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872–1915) was a Russian composer and virtuoso pianist despite his small hands. When he further damaged his right hand, his doctor said he would never recover. In response, he wrote his first large-scale masterpiece, his Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 6, as a “cry against God, against fate.” In time, he recovered from his injury.13

Rezső Seress (born Rudolf Spitzer, 1889–1968) was a Jewish-Hungarian pianist and composer. He survived a labor camp during WWII. After the war, he worked in theater and as a trapeze artist in a circus. After sustaining a severe hand injury, he composed many songs and taught himself to play the piano with only one hand. He was known as a devoted communist and lived most of his life in poverty and depression.14

The pianist Leon Fleisher was unable to play with his right hand for thirty years because of a neurological condition. He performed pieces written for the left hand until 1995, when new treatment allowed him to play with both hands once again. He died in 2020 aged 92.15 Nicholas McCarthy, a British classical pianist, was born in 1989 without a right hand. Nevertheless, he graduated from the prestigious Royal College of Music in London and is a successful performer.16 Finally, Harold Russell (1914–2002), an American WWII veteran and double upper limb amputee, made history when he played himself in a film (The Best Years of Our Lives) and played the piano with two artificial hands.17


  1. Ohry A. “People with disabilities before the days of modern rehabilitation medicine: did they pave the way?” Disabil Rehabil. 2004; 6;26(9):546-8.
  2. Ohry A. “The emperor with the shaking head.” J R Soc Med. 2000;93(10):550.
  3. Ohry A. “Beethoven’s illness.” Neurology 1995;45(6):1234-5.
  4. “Aron Ralston.” Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aron_Ralston
  5. “Götz von Berlichingen.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6tz_von_Berlichingen
  6. “Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Nelson,_1st_Viscount_Nelson
  7. “Joseph Trumpeldor.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Trumpeldor
  8. “Claus von Stauffenberg.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claus_von_Stauffenberg
  9. “Paul Wittgenstein.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Wittgenstein
  10. “Otakar Hollman.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otakar_Hollmann
  11. “Blaise Cendrars.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Cendrars
  12. Ohry A, Ohry-Kossoy K. “Joë Bousquet: paraplegia as a poet’s plight and challenge.” Paraplegia 1988;26(4):273-7.
  13. “Alexander Scriabin.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Scriabin
  14. “Rezső Seress.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rezs%C5%91_Seress
  15. “Leon Fleisher.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher
  16. “Nicholas McCarthy (pianist).” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_McCarthy_(pianist)
  17. “Harold Russell.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Russell

AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.

Winter 2024



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