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Ludwig Guttman

(1899 - 1980)

Sir Ludwig Guttman was a German and British scientist who is credited with founding the Paralympic Games.

Guttman (born July 3, 1899; died March 18, 1980) was born in Tost, within Upper Silesia, Germany (now Toszek, Poland), the eldest child of a Jewish family. He 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.

In April 1918, Guttman began his medical studies at the University of Breslau, but he left in the spring of 1919 to study at the University of Freiburg where he would receive his Doctorate of Medicine in 1924. 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 1933, Guttmann was considered the top neurosurgeon in Germany. When the Nazis took power, however, Jews were banned from practising medicine and Guttman was allowed to work only at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau, where he became director of the hospital. Following the violent attacks of Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, Guttmann ordered his staff to admit anyone, without question, and the following day he justified his decision on admitting 64 new patients a case-by-case basis with the Gestapo.

"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.'"

As conditions in Germany worsened, Guttman and his family fled to England with the help of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, arriving there in March 1939 and settled in Oxford. Guttmann continued his spinal injury research at the Nuffield Department of Neurosurgery in the Radcliffe Infirmary.

In September 1943, the British government asked Guttmann to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, and he was appointed director of the center when it officially opened in February 1944. Guttman believed strongly that sport was a major method of therapy for injured military personnel, helping them build up not only physical strength but also regain their self-respect.

Following this credo, Guttmann organized the first "Stoke Mandeville Games" for disabled personnel in July 1948, the same day as the start of the 1948 London Summer Olympics. Guttmann used the term paraplegic games in order to encourage his patients to take part and this came to be known as the Paralympics which only later became the parallel games and included other disabilities.

The scope of competitors for Guttman's paraplegic games broadened in 1952 with a visiting team of Dutch war veterans, and by 1960 the first quadrennial Paralympic Games were held in Rome featuring a roster of 350 athletes from 24 countries.

Guttmann received the Fearnley Cup, an award for outstanding contributions to the Olympic ideal, in 1956, and Queen Elizabeth II knighted him 10 years later. In 1968, Guttmann accepted an offer from Israel to hold the Paralympic Games in Tel Aviv as a celebration of the country’s 20th anniversary of independence, an event that drew 10,000 spectators.

Guttman died of heart failure in 1980. In June 2012, a statue of Sir Guttman was unveiled at Stoke Mandeville as part of the run up to the London 2012 Summer Paralympics and Olympic Games. Sir Philip Craven, the International Paralympic Committee’s president, said 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.

Sources: Blair Thornburgh, "Jewish Doctor Who Founded Paralympics," The Forward (August 6, 2012); British Paralympic Association; Wikipedia