Sep 2012 Journal

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Founder of the Paralympic Games

On 4 July 2012, a reception was held at the Attlee Room in the House of Lords to celebrate the life of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, founder of the Paralympic Games, whose pioneering wartime work with victims of spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury, revolutionised the treatment of members of the forces whose wounds would previously have left them bedridden and condemned to an early death.

Guttmann’s methods were subsequently applied to paraplegics everywhere. Fittingly, the reception took place under the auspices of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA), the successor organisation to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL), which was responsible in the 1930s for finding posts for a large number of refugee academics and scientists, mostly Jewish, who had been dismissed from their positions by the Nazis.

Ludwig Guttmann was born in 1899 in the village of Tost (Toszek) in Upper Silesia; his family then moved to the larger town of Königshütte (Chorzow). He studied medicine at Freiburg University, where he was active in one of the Jewish student fraternities affiliated to the Kartell-Convent; these were bodies for patriotic German Jews, aiming to instil confidence in their members in the face of anti-Semitism by building up their strength through activities like sports. Guttmann graduated in 1924 and returned to Silesia, where, after a spell in Hamburg, he became a neurosurgeon at the Wenzel Hancke hospital in Breslau (Wroclaw) and a lecturer at Breslau University. In 1933 he was stripped of both positions, but went to work at the Breslau Jewish Hospital, where he became medical director in 1937. Guttmann defended the interests of his Jewish patients courageously; even at the time of greatest danger, during the so-called ‘Kristallnacht’ in November 1938, he defied the Gestapo and SS men who descended on his hospital.

Realising that he could no longer safely remain in Germany, Guttmann emigrated to Britain. He arrived in March 1939 with his wife, Else, and their two children, Dieter (Dennis) and Eva, to take up a position that the SPSL had secured for him at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, on the invitation of Hugh Cairns, Nuffield Professor of Surgery. The Guttmanns were saved but impoverished; they lived in modest circumstances at 63 Lonsdale Road, Oxford (as documents from the SPSL archives at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, helpfully supplied to me by Mrs Laura Broadhurst of CARA, show).

In the early stages of the war, the mortality rate for members of the forces with injuries to the spinal cord was around 80 per cent, with a life expectancy of some three months from injury; the few survivors spent the rest of their days as incurable, useless cripples in institutions. In December 1941, Guttmann presented a paper proposing radical new methods in the treatment and rehabilitation of those suffering from traumatic paraplegia, with the aim of re-integrating them into everyday life. As a result, he was appointed director of a new unit for spinal injuries patients that opened at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in February 1944.

Guttmann’s ground-breaking new approach involved both physiological and psychological treatment, as one of the principal obstacles to be overcome was the ingrained belief that paraplegics were beyond help, a prejudice shared all too often by the victims themselves. Guttmann adopted the idea of using sport as a means of inspiring self-confidence in his patients, as well as building up their physical strength, so that they could again lead active and fulfilled lives. The results of his visionary innovations were remarkable, on a par with the wartime work of the famous plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe in treating RAF personnel suffering from burns and facial disfigurement at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead.

Guttmann’s work continued after the war, leading to the transformation of countless thousands of lives that would otherwise have been consigned to the scrapheap. In 1952, his unit became the National Spinal Injuries Centre. He was knighted in 1966, only the fourth refugee to be so honoured (after the scientists Francis Simon and Hans Krebs and the philosopher Karl Popper), and was a revered figure far beyond Britain by the time of his death in 1980. ‘Poppa’ Guttmann, as he was known, combined concern and compassion for his patients with unbounded energy, a pioneering mind and that devotion to the duties of his calling that was the hallmark of the best of German Jewry. He also had an eye for publicity, hitting on the idea of holding the initial Stoke Mandeville Games on 28 July 1948, the opening day of the London Olympics of that year.

From that event, at which 14 ex-servicemen and 2 ex-servicewomen took part in an archery competition, the Stoke Mandeville Games expanded, taking on an international dimension in 1952 when a contingent of Dutch war veterans competed in the first international games for athletes with disabilities. In 1960, Guttmann arranged for these games to be held in Rome, in parallel with the Olympic Games; medals were awarded to disabled athletes for the first time, leading to the integration of what became the Paralympic Games with the Olympics. This, along with his unique contribution to the welfare of an entire category of medical patients, formed part of Ludwig Guttmann’s legacy.

Readers of this journal will be interested to know that Guttmann was also an active and longstanding member of the AJR, serving on its Board (then a large advisory body separate from the Executive Committee) for over 25 years after being co-opted onto it in 1953. On 1 April 1953, he was, alongside the historian Erich Eyck and Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, one of three distinguished speakers at a public meeting organised by the AJR at Woburn House, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, the first official anti-Jewish action undertaken by the regime after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933.

Guttmann also acted as one of the distinguished patrons of the Thank-You Britain Fund, which was set up in the 1960s, under the administration of the AJR, to raise money from the Jewish refugees from Hitler to promote scholarly research, as a token of gratitude to their new homeland. He gave generously of his expert advice to the AJR on questions relating to the homes for elderly refugees that it administered jointly with the Central British Fund. And at least one ex-serviceman and AJR member, Kenneth Fraser (Kurt Fleischmann), gravely wounded at Arnhem in September 1944, was able to cope with his injuries thanks to Guttmann’s new treatment and lived on until 1972.

But in the early days of emigration Guttmann shared the hardships and restrictions of refugee life. Admitted on a temporary permit, he was, like other refugees from Nazism, forbidden to undertake any form of employment, though he was able to continue his research on the physiology and pathology of the cerebrospinal fluid thanks to his grant from the SPSL (despite the strenuous attempts of the British Medical Association to block the entry of refugee medical practitioners into the profession). Guttmann’s situation remained insecure, as his residence permit expired in September 1939; only after Esther Simpson of the SPSL wrote to the Home Office on his behalf in August 1939 was the permit for Guttmann and his family extended until September 1940 – by which time there could be no question of their returning to Germany.

The papers of the SPSL show how grateful Guttmann and his wife were for the permit that had enabled them to escape Germany for Britain and for the extension that allowed them to remain in Britain permanently. Britain benefited hugely from the hospitality that it had offered Guttmann, while the honours that his achievements earned him - an OBE in 1950 and a CBE in 1960 preceded his knighthood - were a source of great pride to the AJR. When the Queen opened the magnificent new sports stadium at Stoke Mandeville on 2 August 1969, AJR Information commented:

If we had been told thirty years ago that one day someone in our midst would walk side by side with the Queen and act as her host at a public function, most of us would have dismissed the story as the product of wild and unrealistic imagination. And yet, it came true a few weeks ago, when Sir Ludwig Guttmann welcomed Her Majesty who had graciously consented to open the Stoke Mandeville Sports Stadium for the Paralysed and other Disabled.

Guttmann combined loyalty to Britain with loyalty to his German-Jewish origins. The house in which he lived with his family in High Wycombe was called ‘Menorah’, and he was an active member of the local synagogue. He was particularly concerned to promote the treatment of spinal injuries in Israel. He also remained a proud champion of the values and heritage of German Jewry: speaking at an anniversary banquet for former members of the Kartell-Convent in September 1976, he compared German Jewry’s fight for equal rights with his own campaign against the discrimination suffered by groups like the disabled.

Anthony Grenville

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