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Ludwig Guttmann, the doctor who invented the Paralympics

Emma Emma | 16:07 UK time, Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Left, Eddie Marsan as Dr. Ludwig Guttmann and right, Rob Brydon as paralysed soldier

The first Paralympic games took place in Rome in 1960 but the idea for a parallel games for disabled people was born 12 years earlier, right here in the UK.

The Best of Men, a feature length drama airing this Thursday on BBC Two, tells the story of how the spinal injury ward at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, was transformed from a place where paralysed servicemen went to die, into the venue for the first parallel Olympic Games.

The 1948 Games featured wheelchair using athletes competing at sports including archery and table tennis.

Based on a true story, the film begins during World War II with the arrival to the ward of its new head: a German refugee called Dr. Ludwig Guttmann.

Played by Eddie Marsan, Guttmann is dismayed to find a ward full of paralysed soldiers who are all heavily sedated, confined to bed, and being made comfortable until their inevitable deaths.

The life expectancy for someone with a spinal injury in the UK was less than two years back then but Guttmann turned this around and got them all up and moving.

The Best of Men was written by Lucy Gannon who, amongst other things, wrote ITV drama Soldier Soldier. She says that her research led her to believe that the care of spinal patients at Stoke Mandeville pre-Guttmann was well-intentioned.

"At that time, most [spinally injured patients] died within a year, from infections contracted through bed sores and urine, or through simply remaining completely immobile".

As this was their expected fate, the approach, Lucy says, was to give them "peace and quiet and love, and to be kind to them until the end".

But Guttmann's pre-war work as a neurologist at a top German hospital had taught him new ways to treat spinal patients.

The drama shows Guttmann who, despite initial resistance from other staff, removes the men's casts, treats their bed sores and infections and begins the rehabilitation process.

The main thrust is not the medical process, about how mobile each man became, or even about the sport they would eventually be prescribed to build their strength - it is all about the relationships.

Comedy, sadness and hope are conveyed via interactions between the soldiers, played by Rob Brydon, disabled actors David Proud and Ben Owen-Jones, and George McKay. It also portrays the strong bond between Guttmann and his patients.

In the drama, dr. Guttmann, or "Poppa" as he became known, continuously challenges preconceptions of what they can achieve and helps them to realise that suddenly, they have a future.

Lucy believes that It was Guttmann's war-time experiences as a Jew in Germany which really bonded him to the men in his care.

"When he came out of Germany, he'd lost his career, his home and most of his family. Guttmann had his feet kicked out from under him - as they [his patients] had. He had established the need to press on regardless and he made these other people press on too."

Ludwig Guttmann is characterised as having a headstrong and charismatic personality. At a recent screening of the drama, a former patient of his told Lucy the story of a newcomer to the ward who was said to have broken his back only the day before Ludwig Guttmann approached him for the first time. He asked the man if he swam and, when he said yes, the doctor instructed: "I'll see you at the pool at 2 O'clock this afternoon".

Best of Men concludes as the main characters take part in the very first Parallel Olympic Games. Within four years, the Games had become international and now, in 2012, athletes from 165 countries will soon travel to London to take part in the modern Paralympics that he created.

Working on this project has brought writer Lucy Gannon to the conclusion that the work of Ludwig Guttmann will not be complete until the Paralympics and Olympics should eventually become one.

"I hope that The Best of Men makes people realise that what was not possible 40 years ago, is possible now, and that what is not possible now, might be in the future. It would be wonderful if in 20 years time, the Paralympics were included with the main Olympics. Guttmann's legacy will only be fully fulfilled when there is no such thing as the Paralympics. ... the sooner we do it, the better."

• The Best of Men will be shown on BBC Two, at 9 PM on 16 August. Catch it afterwards on iPlayer.

• Disabled actor David Proud, who plays injured soldier Jeremy in The Best of Men, wrote about the experience on the BBC TV blog

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