Paralympic pioneer

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Sir L.G. Archive, early years: Identity card – Schlesische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Breslau. Guttmann. Wellcome Images L0071287

As the Paralympics 2012 commence in London, it seems a good time to commemorate their founder, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, whose personal papers are held in the Wellcome Library.

Guttmann had a distinguished career as a neurologist and neurosurgeon in Breslau after qualifying in medicine in 1924, but his situation became increasingly precarious with the rise of the Nazi Party. When Jewish doctors were forbidden to practice in Aryan hospitals he took up a post at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau, becoming its Medical Director in 1937. He was a witness to the burning of works of non-Aryan authors in the university library in 1934 and on the occasion of the Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, he was able to save a number of lives by admitting to the hospital any male person who presented himself, an action which he was obliged to justify to the Gestapo the following day.

In 1939 Guttmann and his family were granted visas to travel to England, where they were assisted to settle in Oxford by the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. He was able, unlike many of his compatriots, to keep working in his chosen profession on arrival in the UK, undertaking research and teaching in the Nuffield department of neurosurgery in the Radcliffe Infirmary under Hugh Cairns. However he became frustrated at the lack of clinical work and thus accepted an offer to head a new centre dedicated to the treatment of spinal injuries. Given a choice of two sites he settled on the Emergency Medical Service hospital at Stoke Mandeville, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, because it was all on one level; the centre opened on 1 March 1944.

Paralympic athlete

Paralympic athlete. Wellcome Library ref. PP/GUT/C.7

Up to that point it had been believed that very little could be done to improve the situation of paraplegics and quadriplegics. Guttmann, however, introduced a range of interventions aimed at restoring and rehabilitating them. Besides measures aimed at healing infected bedsores and also preventing them, initially by arranging for the patients to be regularly turned by nurses and then by the use of the electrically controlled ‘Stoke Mandeville Turning and Tilting Bed’, and other developments in actual treatment, Guttmann was determined that patients should become as active and independent as possible. The regimen at Stoke Mandeville thus involved getting the patients sitting up rather than recumbent in beds, walking with calipers, and undertaking a range of innovative physiotherapy and occupational therapy activities. In particular he encouraged participation in a range of sporting activities.

Wheelchair archery competition. Wellcome Library ref. PP/GUT/C.7.

Wheelchair archery competition. Wellcome Library ref. PP/GUT/C.7.

In 1948, concurrent with the opening of the Olympic Games in London, Guttmann organised a wheelchair archery competition at Stoke Mandeville between paraplegics from the hospital and a team of ex-servicemen from Richmond. This evolved by the following year into ‘the Grand Festival of Paraplegic Sport’ and took place annually, the first overseas competitors taking part in 1952. The Stoke Mandeville Games went from strength to strength, with an international organising committee set up in 1959 and from 1960, the holding of the games in an overseas venue every four years.

Guttmann features in the current exhibition at the Wiener Library, The Nazi Games: Politics, the Media and the Body, which points out the irony that it was Nazi persecution which was ”a trigger for the creation of the Paralympic movement, as it was a Jewish refugee in Britain who pioneered international sporting competitions for disabled people”.  A podcast of a recent talk by sports historian Dr Martin Polley at the Wiener on Guttman and the Paralympics can be found here.

Guttmann was one of a number of doctors and scientists who came to the UK during the 1930s as refugees whose papers we hold in the Wellcome Library. There are also a significant number of archival and manuscript collections around the theme of Exercise, Fitness and Sport – both for physical rehabilitation as at Stoke Mandeville and for more general issues of health and wellbeing.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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