How CARA helped Ludwig Guttmann, Father of the Paralympics

With London 2012 this summer, the return of the Paralympics to their birthplace affords the perfect opportunity to celebrate the life and work of their founder, former CARA grantee, Sir Ludwig Guttmann.

 Honouring Sir Ludwig Guttmann

CARA and the Poppa Guttmann Trust (PGT) joined forces in 2012 to celebrate the life and legacy of this remarkable man with the unveiling of a life size statue and a reception at the House of Lords. 

Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson was commissioned to create a life-size bronze statue of “Poppa” to stand outside the National Spinal Injuries Centre (NSIC). The celebratory unveiling of this statue took place on 24th June at Stoke Mandeville, and served to reunite former and current NSIC staff and patients in celebration of Guttmann's legacy.

The unveiling itself was carried out by Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler OBE, and his son, Dennis Guttmann, and was followed with speeches from the Minister of State for Care Services, Paul Burstow MP; Mike Mackenzie, Chairman of the PGT; and Laura Broadhurst, CARA Programme Manager and PGT Trustee.

The statue will be moved to the entrance of the NSIC after the Paralympic Game have finished and bust from the same mould will be displayed at all future Paralympic Games.

House of Lords Event: On 4th July, Lord Patel, CARA and the University of East London (UEL) hosted an event at the House of Lords with former Paralympian Baroness Grey-Thompson as the keynote speaker. Press Release here

A CARA Guttmann Prize  has been established in memory of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, to help academics in need to contribute to academic advancement in the Health Sciences.

Paralympic Torch Relay: Laura Broadhurst, CARA staff member and PGT Trustee, will be part carrying the Paralympic Torch with fellow trustees of the PGT. To read more, please read this recent article in the Evening Standard.

The Poppa Guttmann Story

Ludwig Guttmann was a Jewish neurosurgeon born in Germany in 1899. He started studying medicine at the University of Breslau in 1918 after he was turned down for military service on medical grounds.  He continued his studies in Würzberg and Freiburg and took his MD degree in 1924, writing his thesis on tumours of the trachea.

Having returned to Breslau, he worked with Europe’s leading neurologist Professor Otfrid Foerster from 1924 to 1928.  In 1928, Guttmann was invited to start a neurosurgical unit in Hamburg but this post only lasted a year as Foerster asked him to return to Breslau as his first assistant – a job Guttmann felt he could not refuse. 

He remained in this job until 1933 when the Nazis forced all Jews to leave Aryan hospitals.  Under such oppression, Guttmann became a neurologist at the Jewish Hospital in Breslau and was elected Medical Director of the hospital in 1937.  

On 9 November 1938 ( the night of the Kristallnacht), Guttmann gave orders that any male person entering the hospital was to be treated, despite the racial laws specifying that Jewish doctors could only treat Jewish patients. The following morning, he had to justify the large number of admissions (64) to the visiting SS and Gestapo. 

He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition. He pulled faces and grimaced at the patients from behind their back, signalling to them to pull the same expressions and then saying, ‘Look at this man; he’s having a fit!’ " Eva Loeffler, Guttmanns's daughter

Like all Jews, Guttmann's passport had been confiscated and he was not allowed to travel. Fortunately he was ordered by von Ribbentrop to travel to Lisbon to treat a friend of the Dictator, Salazar, in December 1938.  

Like all Jews, Guttmann's passport had been confiscated and he was not allowed to travel. Fortunately he had been ordered by von Ribbentrop, Germany’s Foreign Minister, to travel to Portugal to treat a friend of the Dictator, Salazar, in December 1938.  On his return he was granted permission to go to England for two days.  He was already in contact with CARA (known then as the ‘Society for the Protection of Science and Learning’) and explained how difficult his life and career had become to them.

CARA organised visas for Ludwig, his wife and two children, and a grant of £250 (£10,000 today) to support his family and enable him to take up a research post at the Radcliffe Infirmary and to continue his work at St Hugh’s College Military Hospital for Head Injuries.

The Guttmann family left Germany on 14th March 1939 and in this letter, taken from the CARA archives in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Sir Ludwig expresses his gratitude for the help which CARA had given to him and his family. 

In 1943, whilst at Oxford, he was asked by the British Government to establish a new Spinal Injury Centre for the soldiers returning from the war. He chose Stoke Mandeville Hospital and accepted the post on the condition that he could treat patients in his own way, with no interference.

The new Spinal Unit was opened at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in March 1944 with Dr Guttmann in charge. It had 24 beds and one patient. It was initially very poorly resourced but the medical need was clear; within six months Guttmann had nearly 50 patients. 

"My eyes were opened when we received one particular patient in 1956... He had had to wait eighteen months before he could get transferred to Stoke; and when he came to us he had every complication in the book; he was covered in pressure sores; his kidneys were full of stones; he was practically dead. And this man, working with poor staff who he had welded into a team that he could rely on (he had done it all himself): he cured him, sent him out into the world and back to a meaningful life. For me it was one of those Damascus moments;  The stories about him were true." Dr. John Silver 

Treatment for paraplegics in England was still considered by some as rudimentary. Patients with spinal injuries had a two-year life expectancy.  It was not the injury itself that was life-threatening but the twin dangers of pressure sores and urinary tract infections. 

In his article ‘New Hope for Spinal Cord Sufferers’, Sir Ludwig explains the basics of his approach to the treatment of paraplegics.  

[Paraplegics] had basically been told in their previous hospitals that they would never walk again and that they were going to die… then suddenly here were these nurses saying, ‘You can do this’. ‘We’ve got to get you up." Joan, Nurse 1948-52

Thus, in 1948, the Stoke Mandeville Games was established and went on to be adopted by the International Olympic Committee in 1984 as the modern Paralympics.

 "If it wasn’t for CARA, I wouldn’t be here today."

Philip Lewis MBE, former Paralympian and patient of Poppa Guttmann.