Who Was Ludwig Guttmann, Father of the Paralympics? | History Hit

Who Was Ludwig Guttmann, Father of the Paralympics?

Ludwig Guttmann
Image Credit: Unknown author, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Medical pioneer Sit Ludwig ‘Poppa’ Guttmann is regarded as the father of the Paralympic movement. A passionate advocate for disabled visibility, he pioneered treatments for people with spinal cord injuries, recognised the power of rehabilitation through sport and today is honoured through countless awards, medical centres and statues that bear his name.

In addition to his outstanding medical achievements, his extraordinary life included defying the Gestapo when they attempted to deport his patients to concentration camps, fleeing Germany to escape Nazi persecution and being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Here are 10 facts about Ludwig Guttmann.

1. He was one of four children

Guttmann was the eldest of four children born in Upper Silesia, in the former German Empire (now Toszek in southern Poland). His father was a distiller, and the family were raised in the Jewish faith. When Guttmann was three, the family moved to the Silesian city of Königshütte (today Chorzów, Poland)

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2. He was a doctor

After he was rejected from military service on medical grounds, Guttmann began studying medicine at the University of Breslau in 1918. He continued his studies and received his Doctorate in Medicine in 1924. He studied under leading neurologist Professor Otfrid Foerster from 1924 to 1928, before spending a year starting a neurosurgical unit in Hamburg.

He returned to Breslau a year later as Foerster’s first assistant, until he was forced to stop, as a Jewish doctor, from practising medicine professionally or teaching at universities following the Nazi ascent to power in 1933. He instead became neurologist at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau and was elected the hospital’s overall Medical Director in 1937.

3. He defied the Gestapo

A destroyed Jewish shop in Magdeburg

After the violent attacks on Jewish people during Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, Guttmann ordered his hospital staff to admit all patients without question. The following day, he justified his decision on a case-by-case basis to the visiting Gestapo; out of 64 admissions, 60 were saved from arrest and deportation to concentration camps as a result.

4. He and his family fled the Nazis

An opportunity to escape Germany arose when the Nazis allowed Guttmann to use his passport to travel to Portugal to treat a friend of the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. He was scheduled to return to Germany via London; however, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, an organisation founded in 1933 to assist academics fleeing the Nazi regime, arranged for him to remain in the UK.

He and his wife and two children arrived in Oxford in March 1939. The family received money to help them settle in Oxford, and Guttmann continued his spinal injury research at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

5. He became Director of the National Spinal Injuries Centre

In 1943, he accepted a Directorship of the new National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville on the condition that he be allowed to treat his patients however he chose. The unit had 24 beds, one patient and few resources. Within 6 months of the centre’s opening in 1944, Guttmann had nearly 50 patients.

The centre had been created on the initiative of the Royal Air Force, who sought treatment for pilots with spinal injuries. At the time, the life expectancy for paraplegics was around 2 years from the time of injury. However, Guttmann refused to accept that spinal injuries spelled death.

6. He pioneered treatment for those with spinal cord injuries

A Russian stamp with Ludwig Guttmann on it, 2013

Image Credit: Olga Popova / Shutterstock.com

Guttmann emphasised that patients should maintain hope of progress and returning to their previous life as much as possible. Social rehabilitation, woodwork and clock making workshops and sporting activities were introduced on the wards, the latter which had the biggest impact.

The first sport was wheelchair polo, which was soon replaced by wheelchair basketball. Archery was popular since it relied on upper body strength, meaning that paraplegics could compete with their non-disabled counterparts.

7. He created the Stoke Mandeville Games

Guttmann organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled war veterans. The games were held on 29 July 1948, the same day as the opening of the London Olympics, and consisted of participants with spinal cord injuries competing in wheelchairs.

To encourage his patients to take part in national events, Guttmann used the term ‘Paraplegic Games’, which later came to be known as the ‘Paralympic Games’ and then ‘Parallel Games’, and grew to include other disabilities. By 1952, the Stoke Mandeville Games had been entered by more than 130 international competitors.

8. The first Paralympic Games were held in 1960

A Finnish stamp displaying Paralympic athletes

The International Stoke Mandeville Games were held alongside the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Known at the time as the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games, they were organised with the support of the World Federation of Ex-servicemen, and are now recognised as having been the first Paralympic Games.

9. He was knighted

Guttmann was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1950, and in 1966 he was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1966.

10. His legacy is immense

Guttmann died in March 1980 at the age of 80 after suffering a heart attack. However, his legacy is very much alive. The London 2012 Paralympic Games were organised in tandem with the Olympic Games, and were the closest that Guttmann’s vision of having the events combined has had to being truly realised.

Today, countless medical wards, monuments and awards have been named after Guttmann, and the treatment of spinal injuries has doubtlessly been advanced by decades as a result of his efforts.

Lucy Davidson