Ludwig Guttmann And The Paralympics

I wouldn’t normally touch upon this subject, but my curiosity was piqued by the Paralympics. I didn’t know the origins of them or the background to Ludwig Guttmann.

There is a piece at the Science museum, all too brief and incomplete:

“Ludwig Guttmann was a Jewish neurosurgeon who left Nazi Germany with his family in 1939. In Britain he became director of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, where he helped soldiers with disabilities rehabilitate, and established the Paralympic Games.

At the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Guttmann tried new methods to treat patients with spinal injuries and paralysis sustained in the war. Exercise was used as therapy to help the patients develop strong upper bodies, as they could not walk. Patients were subjected to a gruelling regime of competitive activity, designed to make them psychologically as well as physically strong.

Guttmann watched wheelchair patients use walking sticks to play with a ball and devised a sport called wheelchair polo. The players suffered severe injuries most of the times they played, so did not play the game for long. Then Guttmann tried archery and netball as sports for disabled veterans in wheelchairs. They were a great success as the men at the spinal injuries hospital were able to practise these sports regularly.

On the same day as the Olympics opened in London in 1948, the first Stoke Mandeville Games were held. In 1960 the Olympics were held in Rome, and Goodman arranged for wheelchair athletes to compete in a ‘parallel’ Olympics. The name was shortened to the Paralympics, and now athletes with a wide range of disabilities represent their country every four years.”

Reading more at the Poppa Guttmann Recognition and Celebration Project it says that there is “…no permanent tribute to recognise and celebrate his outstanding work”.

Thankfully, the project’s biography of Ludwig Guttmann is much better:

“Ludwig Guttmann was born on the 3rd of July 1899 in Tost, Germany At the age of 3 his family moved from the little village of Tost to Konigshutte, a town with a large foundry in a coal-mining district. A strapping young coalminer with a fracture of the spine was his first encounter with paraplegia. That was in 1917, when after school, he used to work as a volunteer in an accident Hospital for coalminers. When he began to write up his notes he was told: “Don’t bother, he’ll be dead in a few weeks.” So it was. After five weeks, urinary infections and massive pressure sores led to fatal sepsis. Guttmann remembered that patient for the rest of his life.

From 1919 until 1924 while he was studying medicine in Freiburg he became active in a Jewish fraternity, whose purpose was information and awareness against anti-Semitism in the Universities. This fraternity gradually evolved into a centre of physical training and sport, to acquire body strength, skills, confidence and self-esteem so that “nobody needed to be ashamed of being a Jew”. When Guttmann graduated medical school in1924, financial reasons forced him to return in Breslau. There was a position in the neurological department of a distinguished professor named Otfrid Foester, which Guttmann was happy to accept. From 1928 he worked as a neurosurgeon in a 300 bed psychiatric clinic at Hamburg University and in 1929 became Foester’s assistant. In 1930 he published a paper which made him a lecturer in Breslau University.

In 1933 it was prohibited for Jews to practice medicine in public hospitals. Guttmann was fired on the 30.06.1933 but immediately took over as the director of the neurological and neurosurgical department of the Breslau Jewish hospital. After Hitler’s rise to power, the position of Germans with Jewish origin was getting more and more difficult. He had plenty of proposals to migrate abroad so he could carry on with his career. He did not accept any because he believed that Nazism would not last for long. He became president of the Jewish Medical Community and many times he exposed himself to danger by helping refugees and patients. In September 1938 he was ordered by the Gestapo to discharge all non-Jewish patients from the Jewish Hospital that he was managing. Later that same year, when thousands of Jews were taken to concentration camps, Guttmann was summoned by the local Gestapo Commisar to justify the presence of 63 patients that were admitted to his Hospital. He managed to save all but three that were sent to concentration camps. It was then that he realised that he would have to leave Germany. “

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