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Sir Ludwig Guttmann – Founder of the Paralympic Games

WLS, in association with the RJCC, hosted a talk on Sunday (19 August) about Sir Ludwig Guttmann the founder of the Paralympic Games.  It was an opportune moment for the talk, coming a few days after the BBC2 drama ‘The Best of Men‘ told the story of his arrival at Stoke Mandeville, the way he revolutionised the treatment of spinal cord injuries, and the founding of the Stoke Mandeville Games – now the Paralympics.  The talk was due to be given by Eva Loeffler, the daughter of Sir Ludwig Guttmann but she had to withdraw due her appointment as Mayor of the Olympic Village – so her son Dr Mark Loeffler gave the talk.

Rabbi Maurice Michaels (SWESRS), Orly Kenig (RJCC), Dr Mark Loeffler, & Rabbi Richard Jacobi (WLS)

Dr Leoffler told a packed audience of over 50 people that Sir Ludwig was a busy, determined, little man who ‘never lost his comic Germanic accent’.  He was born in Upper Silesia in 1900, so his life coincided with many of the major events of the 20th century, and he described living in Upper Silesia as being like living in Fiddler on the Roof!  Having worked as a medical orderly during the First World War, he was not called up for active service because he was receiving treatment for an abscess in his neck, he studied medicine and wanted to work as a Paediatrician.  However, he was advised to try looking for ‘a job on the floor below’ – so became a Neurologist instead.

When the Nazi party came to power, Dr Guttmann was an established Neurologist with a growing reputation both home and abroad.  Due to restrictions on Jewish-Aryan relations, he became the Director of the Jewish Hospital in Breslau where he offered refuge to the local Jewish population by admitting them for Neurological illnesses – often outwitting the local Nazi officials by presenting proof of their illness through the use of medical and technical language.  With life increasingly difficult under the Nazi regime, Dr Guttmann accepted an invitation to go Portugal, to treat a friend of the then Portuguese President – the Nazi party agreeing to this because they wanted Portugal to remain neutral – and whilst in Portugal contacted the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics who arranged for him and his family to come to England in March 1939.

We were told how Dr Guttmann always remembered that when they arrived in England, cold and queuing to clear immigration, an official wanted to know who were the parents of their children – fearing the worse (because of previous experiences in Nazi Germany) Dr Guttmann and his wife reluctantly identified themselves and were taken to the front of the queue because ‘it was unkind to keep the children waiting in the cold’.  A kind gesture and welcome to England that remained with the Dr Guttmann for the rest of his life.  The family settled in Oxford, where Dr Guttmann did research in Neurosurgery at the Nuffield Institute at the Radcliffe Infirmary – he was not allowed to practice at that time.  In 1943 in was asked to take charge at Stoke Mandeville one of a number of Spinal Injury units being set up to cope with casualties from the Second World War.

At that time the mortality rate for spinal injuries was as high as 80% dying within a fortnight – with many of the deaths due to infections such urinary tract infections or those caused by pressure sores (then thought to be a symptom of spinal injuries rather than the effect of laying still in bed for days on end).  Those that survived were often locked away – to keep their disabilities out of sight.  Dr Guttmann, an insomniac who lived at Stoke Mandeville, put into practice some of the ideas from his research – ideas described by his grandson as not ‘rocket science’ but simple effective treatments.  He instigated a regime that involved turning the patients every two-hours – tracking the reduction of bed sores by using photographs and tracing paper.  He also replaced or removed all catheters himself to reduce the risk of urinary infections.

Having ensured that his patients could survive their illness – by the time of D-Day 1944 the mortality rate was down to 7% and Stoke Mandeville was the National Centre for Spinal Injuries with all troops with spinal cord injuries being taken there – attention begun to focus on the Psychological condition of the patients.  Recognising that his patients, who were once fit and healthy soldiers, would still suffer if they survived but spent the rest of their lives in hospital wards – he encouraged them to became active so that they too ‘would pay to their taxes’.

Stoke Mandeville is located on flat land and, at that time, was made up of numerous huts – making it an ideal place to get around in a wheelchair.  Dr Guttmann, although ‘not a sportsman himself’ recognised the role that sports could play with rehabilitation along with regular exercise of the upper body.  In 1948, at the same time as the London Olympic Games, Stoke Mandeville held its first annual games.  By 1952 these were international games and provided opportunities for specialist treating the disabled to exchange new ideas, techniques, and treatments.  In 1960, the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Rome as part of the Rome Olympic Games; the first true Paralympics although that term (Paralympics or Parallel Olympics) was applied to Rome retrospectively.

Dr Loeffler concluded his talk by bringing everything up to date – he noted that his grandfather received many awards, has a number of institutes named after him (including ones in Germany), how his grandfather forgave Germany  – ‘they are not all bad’ – although his grandmother found it harder to do so, and how the Paralympics have grown.  It was pointed out that China did not take part in the Rome Paralympics (they had no Paralympians) but topped the table in the Beijing Games in 2008.  To do so China had to create the infrastructure to treat the disabled, integrate them into society (although still rare in China), encourage them to take up sport, and instil the self-believe to make them winners.  To conclude his talk, Dr Loeffler illustrated the importance of sport in rehabilitation by simply showing pictures of modern day Paralympians celebrating their successes and medals.

However, perhaps the best tribute to Sir Ludwig Guttmann is the fact that to family, patients, and staff he was always ‘Poppa’ – the Father of the Paralympics.

See Also:

Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) Article: Awareness of Ludwig Guttmann

Jewish Museum London – Ludwig Guttmann Exhibition (Closes Sunday 16 September 2012)

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  1. Sir Ludwig Guttmann CBE FRS | Bish Bash Blog

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