THE JEWISH DOCTOR WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND FOUNDED THE PARALYMPICS

Ludwig Guttmann was born on July 3, 1899, in Tost, Germany (now Toszek, Poland), to a German-Jewish family. In 1917, while working as a volunteer at a hospital for coal miners, Guttmann encountered a patient with a spinal injury and paraplegia. At the time, paraplegia was effectively a death sentence; unfortunately this proved true for the young coal miner. However, the memory of this patient had a deep impact on Guttmann.


Guttmann worked in the 30ies as a neurosurgeon at the Wenzel Hancke hospital in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), as a university lecturer and as an assistant to Otfrid Foerster, a pioneer of neurosurgery. Guttmann was on the verge of becoming a leading German neurologist — until the rise of the Nazis.


In 1933, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws, which among its other antisemitic directives prohibited Jews from practicing medicine. Guttmann was expelled from his university appointment, fired from his hospital job and stripped of his doctor title. He courageously continued to work in a Jewish hospital before escaping the rising tide of Nazi hatred to the UK where his work was acknowledged with distinction.


His pioneering research led to an invitation to establish and direct the Spinal Injuries Centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Guttmann soon understood sport as a necessary part of the rehabilitation process and so the movement began.


In 1960, for the first time, the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Rome, Italy, alongside the Olympic Games. These games are now recognized as the first Paralympic Games. (The term “Paralympics” refers to the fact that they are parallel to the Olympics and was retroactively recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 1984.) The Rome event featured 400 athletes, representing 23 countries, with an array of disabilities.

After 1960, the Paralympics were held every four years. The first Winter Games were in 1976.


The incredible growth of the Paralympic Games time faced significant challenges. In 1968, the Olympic host city, Mexico City, backed out of hosting the Paralympic Games. A determined Guttmann accepted an invitation from the Israeli government to hold them in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. On Nov. 4 of that year, a crowd of nearly 10,000 watched the opening ceremonies at the stadium of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


The Paralympics had to change venues again in 1980 when the Soviet Union refused to host them alongside the Moscow Olympics. Notably, when questioned about the refusal, a Soviet official told a journalist that there were no disabled people in the entire Soviet Union. So, the Paralympics were held that year in Arnhem, Netherlands. Since the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul and the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, the Paralympics and the Olympics have been held in the same cities and venues.


Guttmann was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966 for his accomplishments in the field of neurology and the disabled community,


Guttmann died on March 18, 1980, but his legacy lives on. His work surpassed the Nazi eugenics that tried to eradicate him along with the Jewish and disabled communities.


(Adapted from an article by EVELYN FRICK)



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