How Nazi persecution of a Jewish doctor led to Paralympics — and a revolution in treating spinal injury

As the London games begin on Wednesday, Ludwig Guttman is being rightly remembered as the ‘father of the Paralympics.’ But he was a lot more besides

A Paralympics sprint event (photo credit: CC BY Stuart Grout, Flickr)
A Paralympics sprint event (photo credit: CC BY Stuart Grout, Flickr)

LONDON (JTA) — In 1917, Ludwig Guttmann, a young German Jew volunteering as an orderly in the local Accident Hospital for Coalminers, came across a strong miner with a broken back. The patient, he was told, would be dead within three months. In fact, he died after five weeks.

“Although I saw many more victims suffering the same fate,” Guttmann wrote in his memoirs, “it was the picture of that young man which remained indelibly fixed in my memory.”

The encounter changed history.

Guttman, who eventually fled Nazi Germany to the United Kingdom, became a doctor and was inspired to specialize in patients with spinal injuries. He eventually founded a sports competition for the disabled, which evolved into the Paralympics, and now is commonly regarded as the “father” of the Paralympic Games.

Ludwig Guttmann (photo credit: JTA via Stoke Mandeville)
Ludwig Guttmann (photo credit: JTA via Stoke Mandeville)

The Games, which use the Olympics facilities, run this year from this Wednesday — August 29 — through to September 9.

While awareness of the German-English refugee had faded since his death in 1980, it is now enjoying a revival. One of the Olympic mascots was named Mandeville; during World War II, Guttman was asked by the government to set up a spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital, north of London, to help the expected many disabled veterans from the war.

Also, earlier this month, the BBC screened “The Best of Men,” a drama based on Guttman’s work at the hospital. And London’s Jewish Museum is showing a small exhibit about Guttman’s work through Sept. 16 comprised mainly of photos and documents from Stoke Mandeville and the early Games, and memorabilia that Guttmann brought back from the second Paralympics, in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, a life-size bronze statue of Guttmann has been placed at the Stoke Mandeville hospital’s stadium that will be transferred later to the hospital, while a new bust of Guttmann will be present at every future Games.

“It is a huge irony,” says Abigail Morris, chief executive of London’s Jewish Museum. “Hitler tried to kill all the Jews and people with disabilities. Thanks to his actions, Guttmann ended up here, in the UK, and this year over 4,000 athletes will compete in London at the Paralympic Games. It’s the triumph of human spirit over adversity.”

In fact, Guttmann had an even broader legacy than the Paralympics — he is widely credited with revolutionizing the treatment of spinal injuries.

Guttmann, who was born in 1899 to a traditional Jewish family in Tost, Upper Silesia, was a senior neurosurgeon at Breslau Hospital until 1933, when the Nazis made it illegal for Jews to work in Aryan hospitals. Guttmann moved to the local Jewish hospital and was elected its medical director in 1937.

Two years later, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics brought him to the United Kingdom with his wife and two young children. He was partially escaping the attention of the Gestapo, who first noticed him on the night of Kristallnacht in November 1938, when he admitted more than 60 men to the hospital, fictitiously claiming that they all had serious medical conditions.

At first he worked in medical research at a prestigious infirmary in the university town of Oxford; Germans were not allowed to practice medicine in the UK. Soon, however, the government noticed a paper he wrote about how to treat people with spinal injuries. They were expecting many disabled veterans from the war and asked him to set up a special spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville.

At the time, people with spinal injuries were “left as lumps of waste” to die, says Mike Mackenzie, chairman of the Poppa Guttmann Trust, which promotes Guttman’s legacy. Guttmann, however, actually wanted to treat them. He realized that the two main causes of death were sepsis from pressure sores and urinary infections, and instructed the nurses to turn patients in their beds every two hours to prevent the sores from developing. He also improved catheterization.

Initially he faced resistance from the medical staff. But, says Mackenzie — himself a patient in Stoke Mandeville after breaking his back in a car accident in 1993 — “people finally stood a chance of living.”

Guttmann also focused on their mental health.

“He was ahead of the curve with the idea that your mental state makes a massive difference, that your bodies and brains are one,” Morris says. “For these men to live, they had to want to live. You had to give them a life worth living.”

One of Guttman’s ideas was to involve them in sport. On the day that the 1948 Olympic Games opened in London, Guttmann organized an archery competition for 16 patients at Stoke Mandeville, which he then repeated every year. In 1952, the games became international when a team of Dutch ex-servicemen was included. In 1960, for the first time, the games took place at the same venue as the mainstream Olympics. The Rome games attracted 400 athletes from 23 countries and are commonly regarded as the first Paralympics, although the term did not become official until 1988.

According to Mackenzie, Guttmann’s belief in the healing power of sport partially stemmed from his experience as a youth in Germany.

“A number of Jewish fraternities used sports to prove to themselves that they’re as good as anyone,” he says. “Guttmann was a fencing athlete and knew what it had done for him and his fellow Jews in Germany, giving them confidence and ability.”

He was fueled by an “extraordinary mixture” of empathy with his patients and ruthless determination.

“He was a bit of a tyrant,” Mackenzie says. “Patients got seriously blasted if they skipped a session in the gym. He was liked and loathed by patients and other authorities, but was considered to be remarkable in what he achieved. By the end of rehab everybody was grateful to him.”

Guttmann, who was knighted in 1966, died of heart failure in 1980 after achieving considerable international renown. In 1974 he visited Heidelberg, Germany, where a street was named for him. Newspaper clips in the small Jewish Museum exhibit show him described as “the famous Englishman from Germany” and “the angel of the Paralympics.”

For Morris of the Jewish Museum, ultimately, Guttmann’s is a very Jewish story.

“It’s that moment when not only do you pick yourself up but you make the world a better place, helping people who literally are forgotten and left to die,” she says. “Guttmann gave these people life. It’s the spirit of l’chaim — to life.”

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