Suffolk: Ludwig Guttmann – the remarkable man who started the Paralympic Games

The Paralympic flame arrives in Suffolk this week and the Rwandan team is training in Bury St Edmunds. But there’s a corner of the county that has an even firmer link with the competition. STEVEN RUSSELL meets the daughter of the man who started the Paralympic Games

A TV drama told an astonishing story on Thursday night. It was about a doctor called Ludwig Guttmann, a German Jew who managed to escape the Nazis in the nick of time. He came to England six months before the start of the war and five years later began transforming the way disabled patients were viewed and treated. He gave them dignity; he rekindled their zest for living; he gave them back life itself.

He also became known as the “Father of the Paralympic Games”.

It was 1944 when Ludwig Guttmann became director of the new Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit in Buckinghamshire, launched in time to take troops injured during the D-Day campaign.

Facilities weren’t really befitting of those who had put their lives on the line for their country and very nearly paid the ultimate price. But, then, not many people held out too much hope for the casualties, either.


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There was just one ward – a converted Nissen hut – and its X-ray unit was an old filing cabinet tilted onto its side! The director’s office was a bathroom.

However, this rather autocratic and dogged expert proved that plush facilities were not a pre-requisite for success. In Britain, average life expectancy for a patient with severe spinal injuries was just six weeks. Guttmann’s revolutionary treatment strategy combatted these needless deaths virtually overnight.

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He also decreed that sport would play a pivotal role – and in 1948 he launched the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed. Four years later the games had become international, and in 1960 they became the Paralympics, with hundreds of disabled men and women in Rome to test themselves against each other in the same sports as able-bodied athletes were playing.

A little over 50 years later, on August 29, massive crowds are expected to cheer the launch of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. It’s a fitting legacy.

This week’s BBC Two drama, The Best of Men, told the story of Sir Ludwig Guttmann (as he became). His daughter, who lives in Suffolk, was pleased with the programme.

“I was terribly impressed by Eddie Marsan, who plays my father and does it so brilliantly. He looks like him. How he even managed to get his walk I don’t know,” says Eva Loeffler, who lives in the Aldeburgh area.

Those old Stoke Mandeville huts have gone, “so they set the whole thing in a stately home, which made it look slightly Downton Abbey! – which is lovely.

“It shows my ‘father’ arriving. Patients thought he was dreadful; nurses thought his ideas were dreadful; other doctors thought he was mad. He had to fight for everything – and because he succeeded, you then see the change in everybody. I think that message came across extremely well.”

The director was single-minded and persistent, refusing to compromise in his quest for what he thought right. “He was very autocratic. He was one of those people who succeeded in what he set out to do. You’ve got to be very determined when you’re a German, a Jewish refugee, coming to England in the 1940s. That comes out well in the film.”

After her father’s death in 1980, Eva became very involved in the life of Stoke Mandeville. She became chairman of the British Wheelchair Sports Foundation and was one of the first directors of the British Paralympic Association.

In 2010 she was awarded an OBE for services to disability sport.

In a fitting move, Eva has been invited to be “Mayor of the Paralympic Village” for the duration. Details of her role will emerge as the games unfold, but she’s eagerly anticipating the 12 days of competition.

Certainly she’s convinced that the magic that’s gripped east London over the past few weeks will still be there from August 29 onwards.

“I’ve been watching the Olympics and the atmosphere has been wonderful. Actually, we [she and husband Frank] went along. We had tickets for the three-metre diving. The village is wonderful; the flowers and the landscaping and the volunteers, they’re just amazing: smiling faces, always happy to help you.

“It was so impressive. And I’ve never seen that before, in that way, at any sporting event – ever.”

Eva feels “terribly proud” to know that her father’s legacy has endured and honours the resilience of the human spirit.

“What an achievement, really, for a man who nearly went to Auschwitz with all of us. I mean, it was touch and go.”

LUDWIG Guttmann was born in the summer of 1899 in Tost. It was then in Germany and is now Toszek, in Poland. He studied medicine at the University of Breslau and in the 1920s worked with a top neurologist.

The rise of Nazism in the 1930s brought restrictions about where Jews could work and Guttmann became neurologist to the Jewish Hospital in Breslau (again, then part of Germany but today Wroclaw in Poland). He became its medical director in 1937.

In November, 1938, Nazis incited the population to join attacks on Jewish-owned shops, buildings, synagogues, houses, hospitals and schools. Dozens of Jews were killed and about 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps. The doctor told his staff to let any men into the hospital and give them a bed. In other words, he was offering sanctuary to anyone at risk. More than 60 Jewish men arrived during the night. The next morning, Gestapo queried the validity of this influx of “patients”.

“My father was adamant that all the men were sick and said many of them were suffering from stress,” Eva told Buckinghamshire County Council’s Mandeville Legacy website.

“He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition. Apparently he also pulled faces and grimaced at the patients from behind the Gestapo’s back, signalling to them to pull the same expressions and then saying, ‘Look at this man; he’s having a fit.’”

It worked – though Eva tells ealife her father had been prepared for the worst. “He thought he was going to be carted off to a concentration camp that day, so my mother made him wear a very heavy, warm coat. She thought he wouldn’t be coming back. It must have been terrible.”

The Nazis had confiscated the passports of Jews, meaning they couldn’t travel, but late in 1938 Ludwig was ordered to Lisbon to treat a friend of the country’s dictator, with whom Germany was trying to keep friendly.

On his way back from Portugal he called at London. During the 1930s he’d resolved to stay in Germany and help as many people as he could, despite the risks, but by now he knew things were going to turn very, very bad.

Guttmann had been talking to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, which sought to protect persecuted scholars. “My mother had written letters, asking for help,” explains Eva.

During the London stopover, her father learned visas had been arranged and were waiting in Berlin. He contacted wife Else and advised her to start preparing.

It was a terribly hard decision to make, says Eva. “His father was still alive – he couldn’t come out. His sister and brother-in-law, and my mother’s sister and her two children – they all died in Auschwitz.”

Eva doesn’t recall much of her life in Germany.

“I was just six. I remember my mother taking me on a bus. There was a big Jewish community in Breslau, and the liberal synagogue we attended was beautiful. She said ‘There’s the synagogue’, and it was just a shell. I remember seeing the light through it.” It had been wrecked during anti-Jewish attacks.

Eva does remember crying a lot as a child, without really knowing why. It was doubtless a reaction to the tension, edginess and profound sadness that defined this terrible period.

The Guttmanns, including the girl and her brother, left Germany in the spring of 1939 and settled in Oxford. Ludwig worked in research at the Radcliffe Infirmary and St Hugh’s College Military Hospital for Head Injuries.

Then he was asked to become director of the new National Spinal Injury Centre at Stoke Mandeville. He agreed, as long as he could do it his way.

The unit started with two-dozen beds and a single patient, but within six months there were nearly 50.

The standard treatment of paraplegics was unimaginable compared with today, with many patients expected to live for only two years following a spinal injury. Tragically, it wasn’t usually the injury itself that proved fatal but the consequence of bladder and kidney infections and often-large pressure sores.

Work in America showed that turning a patient every couple of hours did wonders to protect their health, and Guttmann imported those ideas. He also took control of every detail of both direct patient care and hospital life – even monitoring the cleaning.

Physiotherapy was important. Patients used to lying still and depressed for long periods in other hospitals – waiting to die, basically – were at Stoke Mandeville encouraged to move.

The director was also concerned about the mind and spirit. Workshops were set up where patients could do things such as woodwork and watch-repairs. His ambition was for patients to eventually leave with “ambition and purpose”, feeling good about themselves.

Then there was sport. There was initially wheelchair polo, using walking sticks and a puck, but many patients were hurt during play and wheelchair basketball was developed. Archery and table-tennis were other popular pursuits.

Ludwig Guttmann could be curt – one former patient called him a fireball. Eva says he “retained that very Germanic strain of authoritarianism. It was difficult to disagree or argue with him”. However, his humanity clearly shone through. Grateful patients nicknamed him Poppa and it stuck.

Eva was 11 when her father started at Stoke Mandeville. It meant he became “increasingly absent” – initially having to catch a bus on Monday mornings and usually coming home only at weekends. Then, he’d invariably have medical papers to write. There would also be trips to spinal units abroad.

On the day the London Olympics began in 1948, the doctor organised the initial Stoke Mandeville games for the paralysed. It started as a small archery competition for 16 paralysed war veterans, but he was determined to prove that “disabled sport” could be as competitive and thrilling as its non-disabled counterpart.

And so the dream evolved. During the 1950s national games usually took place in June, involving teams from spinal units and disabled sports clubs. Later in the year would come the International Games, with teams from other nations. The year 1956 brought the first truly-cosmopolitan event, with 18 countries represented, including America, Australia, Malaya and Pakistan.

The games didn’t really impinge on the public consciousness, however. The physiotherapists and nurses were expected to help out. Teams were billeted in empty hospital wards and fed by local volunteers.

Eva recalls helping out at these “Wheelchair Games” – pulling arrows out of targets and picking up the ball during table tennis matches.

She enjoyed the atmosphere and remembers big parties held in the sports hall on the last evening, where she’d rush about with a tray of beers “and everyone got very merry”.

In 1960, the doctor’s vision of a Paralympic Games became reality when he arranged for 400 wheelchair athletes from 23 countries to compete in an event “parallel” to the regular Olympics in Rome.

The name was shortened to Paralympics. (“Para” does not, as many people believe, derive from “paraplegic”.)

Now, the Games are held every four years. In a few days’ time, in London, more than 4,000 athletes from 147 countries will take part.

Ludwig Guttmann received the OBE and the CBE, and was knighted when he retired in 1966. He didn’t rest on his laurels, though: in the 1970s he led talks with the International Olympic Committee that established close links and saw the creation of the International Paralympic Committee.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann died of heart failure in early 1980. The National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville is still a global leader in the treatment of spinal injuries.

A statue was recently unveiled in his honour by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and The Poppa Guttmann Trust. There’s also a bust, which will be displayed at each Paralympic Games.

Eva Loeffler, who did the unveiling, is incredibly proud of her father.

“I think he was one of Hitler’s ‘gifts’ to this country, actually. Look what he achieved. He’s not the only one; there are several Nobel prize-winners, who were also thrown out.”

As a teenager, Eva had thoughts of studying history, but followed her father’s “suggestion” that physiotherapy would be a better bet. “In those days one did what one’s father wanted you to do,” she smiles. “This was 1949, you know. And, actually, there weren’t many jobs for women outside nursing and hospitals. So I did it.”

She met her husband in London, when they were both training. Frank became a consultant gynaecologist at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.

Eva essentially gave up physiotherapy when her children came along, and later much enjoyed working with the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Home was in London – Barnes, then Notting Hill – but from the 1960s the family came to Thorpeness and Aldeburgh for holidays.

They grew to love the county and later bought a flat on Crag Path, Aldeburgh, in which to stay.

Later again, Eva and her husband bought a house in the area and retired to Suffolk about 10 years ago.

Eva acknowledges the Paralympics created by her father have played a huge part in improving attitudes to disability – particularly in other countries.

“When my father wanted to hold wheelchair games in Moscow, when the Olympics were there, the Russian authorities told him ‘We have no disabled in Russia.’

“With China, before the Paralympics came, they had no facilities for the disabled. They were kept in the home; they were hidden.

“When China suddenly realised they were going to have to have Paralympic Games, they thought ‘Oh, we must improve things for our disabled people.’

“It’s still nothing like here, but it’s made a big difference to those countries where disabled people were really kept out of sight and out of mind.

“I think that’s the biggest legacy.”

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