Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sir Ludwig Guttmann

The upcoming 2012 Paralympics in London has been the occasion for a celebration of the life and work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, founder of the games. A BBC show on his life, an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of London, and a number of articles and web pages about his life have recently paid tribute to Guttmann and his accomplishments.

During the 1940s, Guttmann was a physician at Stokes-Mandeville Hospital in England, treating victims of spinal cord injury, especially soldiers injured in World War II. Before his innovations, most such victims died very quickly of bedsores or infections. According to the Stokes-Mandeville page on Guttmann "The mortality rate of traumatic paraplegia in British and American Armies during World War I was still very high reaching 80%. The few survivors carried on living as useless and hopeless cripples, unemployable and unwanted, condemned for the rest of their lives to institutions for incurable patients with no encouragement to return to a useful life. Life expectancy was a mere 3 months following injury."(The story of the World War I paraplegic on "Downton Abbey" seems to have been based on wishful thinking.)

Guttmann worked with the injured and their caregivers to dramatically improve treatment and also to change the attitude towards such disabilities and help the recovering individuals to lead meaningful lives. Introducing them to archery was part of his effort. From the website of the 2012 Paralympics: "In 1948, Dr Ludwig Guttmann organised a wheelchair archery competition at Stoke Mandeville hospital for World War II soldiers with spinal cord injuries. The competition took place between sports clubs and other hospitals on the same day as the Opening Ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic Games. Four years later, as more sports were added, athletes from Holland joined in and the international Paralympic Movement was born."

Before arriving in Britain as a refugee in 1939, Gutmann had already shown heroic behavior against the rise of antisemitism in Germany. The Stokes-Mandeville page on Guttmann states: "From 1919 until 1924 while he was studying medicine in Freiburg he became active in a Jewish fraternity, whose purpose was information and awareness against anti-Semitism in the Universities. This fraternity gradually evolved into a centre of physical training and sport, to acquire body strength, skills, confidence and self-esteem so that 'nobody needed to be ashamed of being a Jew.'"

On Kristallnacht in 1938 Guttmann offered refuge in his hospital to Jews fleeing the riots. An article in the Telegraph provides this summary of his heroism:
“The next day the Gestapo came to see my father, wanting to know why so many admissions had happened overnight,” Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler, recalls. Guttmann took them round all the new “patients”, inventing diagnoses. “My father was adamant that all the men were sick… He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition.” In his unfinished memoirs, Guttmann recalls that 60 of the 64 admissions from the previous night were saved from the concentration camps. Fully expecting to be hauled off himself, he had donned boots and a coat before setting off to the hospital the next morning. 
The incident was one of several in which Guttmann risked his life for his compatriots, as the noose tightened around Germany’s Jewish population. It illustrates the qualities of this formidable neurosurgeon, according to those who knew him: compassion, a strong sense of justice, and immense courage. They were qualities that would help transform the lives of thousands in the years to come – first in Britain where he, his wife Else and two children arrived as virtually penniless refugees the following year, and eventually, around the world. -- "Paralympics founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann's legacy celebrated in BBC drama"

Note: I thank my friend Sheila for suggesting this hero.

1 comment:

  1. Ludwig Guttmann’s initial emigration from Nazi Germany and his subsequent medical research was made possible by the guidance and financial support which he was given by CARA (then The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning).

    The story of how CARA helped Sir Ludwig and a variety of original documents, images and recordings are available on the CARA website, online virtual exhibition and facebook page.