Dr. Ludwig Guttmann dedicated his entire life to researching and treating patients with spinal cord injuries. Throughout his career, he was always clear that the success of a treatment and the recovery of a patient not only had to do with the medicines, but above all with his psychological reaction and the quality of life that he could achieve. His studies on the recovery of spinal injuries and the discovery of sport as a tool to improve the life expectancy of patients mean that today he is remembered as the father of the Paralympic movement.
“If someone can have the appropriate treatment from the beginning, not only can their life expectancy be prolonged, but they could also have a life as normal as that of a person without disabilities,” Dr. Guttmann, a pioneer in demonstrating, always explained naturally. that sport for people with disabilities can be as competitive and exciting as sport without disabilities.
Ludwig Guttmann, known as Poppa (father) Guttmann, was born in Tost (present-day Poland and then part of Germany) on July 3, 1899. He was the eldest of four siblings in a family of Jewish origin. After completing his school studies, at the age of 18 he began to work at the Königshütte hospital. There Guttmann met for the first time with paraplegic patients due to spinal cord injuries and, without a doubt, this experience marked his vocation.
A year later, the young Ludwig began studying medicine at the University of Breslau, after being rejected for military service on medical grounds. He continued his studies in Würzburg and Freiburg and received his doctorate in 1924 with a thesis on tumors in the trachea.
He began working with the leading European neurologist of the time, Professor Otfrid Foerster, with whom he spent nine years except for a one-year hiatus to start a neurosurgery unit in Hamburg. In 1933, although he was already considered the most important neurologist in Germany, the Nazis’ Nuremberg Law forced all Jews to stop practicing medicine in Aryan hospitals. Under such oppression, Guttmann became a neurologist at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau and was elected hospital medical director in 1937.
Since the beginning of the Nazi repression against the Jews, Guttmann received various offers to emigrate, since his father had died in a concentration camp and his sister did so in a gas chamber. However, he rejected them because he believed that this regime would not last. In September 1938, the Gestapo ordered him to stop treating non-Jewish people in the hospital. Following the anti-Semitic attacks of the so-called Night of Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938, Guttmann ordered hospital staff to admit anyone without questions. The next day he had to justify his decision, case by case, to the SS and the Gestapo. Of 64 people admitted, 60 were saved from arrest and deportation to concentration camps. It was from these events that Guttmann admitted the need to leave Germany.
But Guttmann, like the rest of the Jews, had his passport confiscated and was not allowed to travel; However, in December 1938, the German Foreign Minister, Von Ribbentrop, ordered him to travel to the Portuguese capital to treat a friend of the dictator Salazar. On his return trip he was granted permission to go to England for two days and, as he was already in contact with the British Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, he was offered a refugee scholarship and stayed with his wife and her two sons.
The family found a small house in Oxford to live in. Guttmann began working at St. Hugh’s College Military Hospital for head injuries and his children were also awarded scholarships. In 1943 the British Government asked him to become director of the new National Spinal Injury Center Unit at Stoke Mandeville Emergency Medical Services Hospital. He accepted the position on the condition that he could treat patients in his own way, without interference.
He started with very few resources and only 24 beds, but in six months Guttmann had almost 50 patients, most of them ex-war combatants who were going to spend their last months there, since the life expectancy of the paraplegics before reaching the Guttmann center he was only two years old from the time of the injury. However, the doctor refused to accept that a spinal injury was a death sentence, and his advances in the treatment of paraplegia were revolutionary, to the point of influencing so much, that he taught his methods to an entire generation of doctors and centers were established around the world, including those bearing his name in Barcelona, Heidelberg and Israel.
An important part of the treatment was ensuring that patients had some hope of progressing and returning to their previous life. Patients participated in activities to stay active, both social and medical rehabilitation. Workshops were set up in the hospital where they could work in wood and repair watches, but it was the promotion of sports activities that had the greatest impact on them.
The first sport was wheelchair polo with poles and a puck, but it was soon replaced by wheelchair basketball. Archery also became very popular because it relied on upper body strength, which meant that paraplegics could compete with people without disabilities. In this way, archery was the first competitive sport in the First Games of Stoke Mandeville, in 1948. In those first games, which were held in parallel to the Olympic Games in London, 16 athletes participated, 14 men and two women.
The second edition of the Stoke Mandeville Games took place exactly one year later, in 1949. The competition was extended to 37 athletes from six hospitals. In this edition, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann made public his intention to move towards a movement equivalent to the Olympic one, but dedicated to athletes with disabilities. By 1951 the games already included four sports and 126 participants from 11 hospitals across the UK.
The first edition with international participation was that of 1952, when there was a representation of the Aardenburg Veterans Hospital (Netherlands). In 1953 the declaration of intentions of the International Games was already a reality, and later it hung in the new sports stadium when it was inaugurated, in 1969, and also in the archery room of the hospital: “The goal of the Stoke Mandeville Games is to unite paralyzed men and women from all over the world in an international sports movement, and their spirit of true sportsmanship today will give hope and inspiration to thousands of paralyzed people. “
At the 1956 Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Guttmann the Sir Thomas Fearnley Cup for his service to the Olympic movement. Three years later, in 1959, the games had grown to 360 competitors from 20 countries, and a year later, in 1960, the then called Stoke Mandeville International Games were officially held alongside the Rome Olympics, so They are considered the first Paralympic Games in history, although the term has only been applied to them since 1984.
After his retirement from the Spinal Injury Center in 1966, Guttmann continued to be heavily involved with the Games and their national and international organization. That year he was knighted (Sir) by Her Majesty the Queen, becoming Sir Ludwig Guttmann.
In 1969, Queen Elizabeth II herself opened a new sports center on the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, renamed the Ludwig Guttmann Sports Center for the Disabled after the doctor’s death.
In addition to organizing the International Games, Guttmann continued to travel and lecture on spinal injuries around the world, educating and influencing other physicians with his theories and methods. However, it was his leadership in sports organizations for the disabled that occupied him until the late 1970s.
It was in this decade that Dr. Guttmann spearheaded discussions with the International Olympic Committee on the use of the term “Olympic” to establish the International Paralympic Committee.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann died on March 18, 1980, at the age of 80, of heart failure caused by a heart attack a few months earlier. He did not live to see his whole vision realized, but his work lives on through today’s disability sports organizations and the National Spinal Injury Center in Stoke Mandeville, which continues to be a global benchmark in spinal injury treatment.
The 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro became the third most important sporting event in the world, with the participation of 170 countries and more than 4,000 athletes.