Read David Proud's post on the the BBC TV blog
Ludwig Guttman and the First Paralympic Games
Played by Eddie Marsan
On the day that King George VI opened the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Dr Ludwig Guttman presided over a wheel chair archery competition in the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital. The competitors, sixteen ex servicemen, were young men and women with severe spinal injuries. The games were the first step in Ludwig Guttman’s dream of Paralympic Games.
Guttman had been an internationally renowned neurologist in Germany in the thirties, but his career had suffered under severe anti-Semitic laws which banned him from treating non Jews. He fled Germany in 1939 and arrived with his wife and two young children speaking no English. He escaped to Oxford and was given a research job. In 1944, the opportunity came to be a Physician at Stoke Mandeville. In a few years he had transformed the treatment of paraplegics in the UK. Sport was the key.
Guttman hated what he found at the Spinal Unit. Care for the patients was merely palliative. Most prognoses were terminal. Paralyzed teenagers were consigned to their beds and incarcerated in plaster. Eighty percent of patients died within three years, from bed sores, urinary tract infections and other complications. Morale amongst staff was rock bottom.
Guttman transformed the place. He threw out the fatalistic care regime, challenged the negative staff and insisted his patients fight back. Crucially he introduced the idea of physiotherapy as a medical treatment. His big idea was sport as a way of building strength and as an antidote to depression. He hired an army physical trainer to come in and literally throw balls at the patients. He made them train. He made them lift weights. He made them move. And it worked.
Within months, the Spinal Unit became a place of miracles, hope and determination. A World War one veteran, who had been lying flat on his back for 26 years, came to the Unit to try one of their new wheelchairs. Six months later, he left able to walk with the aid of just a stick.
Guttman was a remarkable character, amusing, compassionate and charismatic. Known to everyone as ‘Poppa’, he was indefatigable, omnipresent, inventive and challenging. The stories of his relationship with individual patients are touching. His many conflicts with colleagues and administration testify to his commitment and energy. His medical work was remarkable in itself but he also saw how the Olympian dream could serve another purpose – to combat prejudice and extend knowledge.
Over twenty years, Guttman worked to expand the Stoke Mandeville Games, opening the event up to increasing numbers of disabled athletes and involving more and more nations. In just twelve years in 1960, the first official Paralympics took part in Rome, alongside the Olympics. Guttman presided. It was the culmination of his life’s work. He was knighted in 1966.