Jewish Doctor Who Founded Paralympics

Ludwig Guttmann, Refugee From Nazis, Pioneered Competition

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By Blair Thornburgh

Published August 06, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
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The Paralympics, the quadrennial competition for athletes with disabilities that follows the Olympics, will draw some 4,200 participants to London in late August to vie for medals before 1.5 million ticket-holders, 5,600 journalists, countless television viewers — and, for the first time, a bronze bust of the bespectacled physician and refugee from Nazi Germany who started it all.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann, whose groundbreaking treatments for traumatic paraplegia provided the platform for what has become the Paralympics, is getting some long-delayed official recognition at last.

The bust of Guttmann that will be on display at the London Paralympics was presented to the International Paralympic Committee’s president, Sir Philip Craven, last June by supporters of Guttmann. It will be lent out for display at all future Paralympic Games, as well, to visibly memorialize the father of what has become an enormous worldwide movement.

“We wanted to create a lasting legacy of Professor Guttmann’s contribution to the initiation of Paralympic sport,” said Mike Mackenzie, chairman of the Poppa Guttmann Trust, which commissioned the bust. The trust, established in 2010 to promote awareness of the history of spinal cord treatment, also commissioned a full-sized statue of Guttmann that will stand outside the National Spine Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, in Aylesbury, where Guttmann worked.

Born in 1899 to a Jewish family in Tost, Germany, Guttmann grew up in the coal-mining town of Königshütte. It was there, as a 17-year-old hospital volunteer, that he saw his first paraplegic patient, a coal miner who wasted away and died after a fracture of the spine. As a medical student in Freiburg, Guttmann was an active member of his Jewish fraternity, where he worked against anti-Semitism in German universities. At the same time, the young doctor exhorted his fellow Jewish students to play sports and train physically, building not just bodily strength, but also self-confidence, and taking pride in their identity.

By 1930, after getting his medical degree and working as a neurosurgeon at Hamburg University, Guttmann had a job in Breslau as assistant to the country’s top neurologist. But just three years later he was fired: With the ascension to power of the Nazis at that time, Jews were barred from practicing medicine at Aryan institutions.

Unwilling to flee despite the rising Nazi threat, Guttmann immediately took over the neurological and neurosurgical departments at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau. In 1938, on the eve of Kristallnacht, Guttmann, now the hospital’s medical director, ordered staff to admit any male patient seeking admission in defiance of laws that mandated the hospital treat only Jews. The following morning, he was called to justify the presence of 64 new hospital patients in front of the Gestapo commissar.

“He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition,” his daughter Eva Loeffler recalled in an interview with the Mandeville Legacy project. “Apparently he also pulled faces and grimaced at the patients from behind the Gestapo’s back, signaling to them to pull the same expressions and then saying ‘Look at this man: he’s having a fit.’”


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