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David Gow, bio-engineer

Identifier: GD1-150

Scope and Contents

Two oral history interviews recorded with bio-engineer David Gow between 2018 and 2019. Way-marked catalogues are available for both interviews, and a transcription is available for GD1/150/2.


  • Creation: 2018-2019

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Biographical / Historical

David Gow was born in 1957 in Dumfries. He graduated from The University of Edinburgh with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1979. Shortly after he began to work at Ferranti, an electrical engineering firm, in the Gorgie area of the city. Whilst working at Ferranti, he was particularly interested in researching the construction of artificial legs, often drawing diagrams of them. This curiosity in the subject motivated him to begin working at the Bio-engineering Centre as a Research Associate in January 1981.This post was funded by The University of Edinburgh.

In 1984, Gow officially qualified as a Bioengineer for the Lothian Health Board. He was particularly passionate about creating an artificial limb that was customizable so that it could be fitted on both people with no upper limbs and people with partial hands who had lost parts of their hand or their fingers. This was critical to the advancement of artificial limbs because in the 1980s there was no prostheses available for this small but significant number of patients. Patients with partial hands were previously fitted with electrical hands which were designed to fit complete hand absence, which meant that they were often too long for someone with a partial limb and thus more difficult to use. He was also passionate about creating more artificial limbs for young children; he believed that if there were no successful prostheses for children, then there would be no successful prostheses for adults because the industry would not develop appropriately for patients.

Because of his interest in creating prostheses for partial hand patients, in 1986 Gow began to collaborate with REACH, a charity dedicated to supporting children with upper limb deficiencies, to create an electrically powered hand for children between 8 and 10 years old who had a partial hand or wrist. Initially, it was a simple device that had a powered knuckle and a fixed thumb, but it was developed throughout the early 1990s and eventually had the ability to move the thumb and the fingers as well as lock automatically when it grasped an object. Furthermore, a small adult size was introduced, meaning it could now be fitted to teenagers and young people with partial hands.

Although the REACH Hand proved to be a successful prosthesis for eight year old children and young adults, Gow continued to work on developing an artificial limb that could be fitted to even younger children. To achieve this, he decided to create an experimental partial hand using powered digits in 1994. He fitted the rotator for the wrist inside the body of the hand, which meant that the motor for the hand could be stored in each of the fingers. The motors and gearboxes within the fingers then rotated against worm and wheel gears - Gow was inspired to make this unusual change in prosthetic componentry after riding an exercise bike in his home which used a similar system. The fact that the parts of the artificial limb were packed in a more compact way meant that the size of the prosthesis could be scaled down much more easily. In fact, using his innovative method, Gow was able to make a hand that could be fitted to child patients as young as four years old. Another benefit to the electrically powered fingers was that they were structurally neutral - both a left and right handed version of the fingers could be made using a kit that contained all of the parts.

In 1998, Gow announced that he and his team would create the world's first "bionic" arm within 12 weeks. Later that year, Gow fitted Moffat hotelier Campbell Aird with the Edinburgh Modular Arm System (EMAS) at the Bioengineering Centre in front of seven television presenters and camera crew. Aird had lost his arm and shoulder through muscular cancer. It was the first ever upper limb prosthetic to have a powered shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers and was "bionic" in the sense that it was controlled by electrical signals from the muscles. Bill Dykes, a world-famous prosthetist from Strathclyde University, created the socket (the part of the prosthesis that is touching your body) so that there was no weight imbalance in the shoulder, and it weighed just 1.8kg, less than a human arm.

In 2001, David Gow created his own company, then called Touch. There were two shareholders for the company - Gow himself and the Edinburgh Healthcare Trust, showing the close link with the NHS. He never worked more than 2 days a week in the commercial sector so that he could continue working for the NHS. In 2003, the company was rebranded from Touch to Touch EMAS. They were awarded a SMART Award of £25,000 from Scottish Enterprise the same year that it was founded. This helped to get the company up and running and to begin financing the advancement of a prosthetic hand with articulating fingers; in 2007, the first development of this project was completed and is now called the i-limb hand. The company also received funding from Archangels, an investment company,that allowed them to buy premises in Livingston so that they could build their own artificial limbs; prior to having this workspace, they rented a room in the Eastern General Hospital and then had a workshop near the Murrayfield area of Edinburgh. In 2005, Gow's company was renamed again to Touch Bionics; this new company name was more representative of the variety of products that they created and the term "Bionics" was reflective of the fact that they created prostheses using mechanical methods.

David Gow stepped down as Director of Touch Bionics in 2009, and retired from the NHS in 2015. As of 2016, Touch Bionics is owned by Össur , an Icelandic company dedicated to developing and selling non-invasive orthopaedic products.


2 digital audio file(s)

David Gow oral histories
Louise Williams
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Lothian Health Services Archive Repository

Centre for Research Collections
Edinburgh University Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44 (0)131 650 3392