Ludwig Guttmann

Ludwig Guttmann

(1899 – 1980)

DJ Name: Sir Ludwiggle

Cue the dramatic drums and trumpets, it’s sports o’clock, or what other people call the Olympics. To get in the spirit, we’re lounging on our couches and ordering pizza straight to our doorsteps – you know, just like the Olympic athletes do. And as we flick on the TV, greasy pizza slice in hand (basically a triathlon if you ask us) we get to watch Katie Ledecky do some freestyle swimming, Noah Lyles do some sprinting (once a Titan, always a Titan!!) and Naomi Osaka hit some balls over the net. You may notice, though, some Olympic athletes are missing from the screen: specifically, athletes bound to their wheelchairs. 

Ever since 1948, athletes in wheelchairs have gotten the chance to go for the Gold thanks to German neurosurgeon Ludwig Guttmann. So before we get to how Ludwig’s brains led to the formation of the Paralympics, shuffle up this playlist that he definitely made so you can get in the history story time ~zone~. We’re going to Europe this week, baby! 

Ludwig Guttmann was born on July 3, 1899, to a German Jewish family in Tost, Germany (which is now technically Poland). His parents were Dorothy and Bernard, who worked as a distiller (everyone always wanted Bernard around for happy hour), and Li’l Ludwig finished school in 1917 and then was promptly called for military service. However, he never made it into the military based on medical reasons, so he turned to med school. In 1918, he headed off to the University of Breslau with a dream and a cardigan and also probably some beakers and flasks and stuff. He graduated in 1924, and began working with Europe’s best and brainiest neurologist, Professor Otfrid Foerster. In 1928, though, Ludwig was asked to start a neurological unit in Hamburg, Germany, so he bid adieu to his boo Otfrid and headed off. However, he returned to Breslau a year later to work with Otfrid again as his numero uno assistant.

Ludwig’s life was upended, though, in 1933 when – hmmm, how well does our Historic Shuffle audience know world history? Which leader rose to power in Germany in 1933? We’ll give you a hint! It wasn’t Angela Merkel. OK, hopefully you got that little trivia question correct, and you know that Hitler’s Nazi Party’s rise to power did not bode well for Ludwig’s Jewish heritage and his career. The Nazis ordered all Jews out of Aryan hospitals, and Ludwig had to move to the Jewish hospital in the area. During this time, Ludwig was becoming quite the neurologist to watch, one of the 40 under 40 doctors one might posit, and it wasn’t long before he was elected medical director of the Jewish hospital in 1937. 

From there, Ludwig got a bit gutsy. He openly defied Nazi orders, and said that any man could seek treatment at his hospital regardless of his religion (screw women, though, they can all go die from lobotomies!!) His career and perhaps his life for sure would have been threatened if not for his stunning skills in neuroscience, and he had a number of recruiters from outside of Germany slide into his LinkedIn DMs. Though he spoke no English, Ludwig, his wife Else and his two young kiddos fled Germany and headed straight for England, hearing that there was good tea and crumpets there awaiting them. Ludwig focused on a number of research projects, kept busy in his new home and worked at a hospital for head injuries.

In the early 1940s, as World War II raged on and more people were returning home injured, the English government decided to open up a special spinal ward that could focus primarily on service members who were returning home paralyzed. The queen herself, Mary Berry, or whoever, probably someone important, asked Ludwig to become the new unit’s director. He said sure thang, but under one condition: he wanted to have the liberty to use his own theories on how to best treat patients without the state getting all up in his bizness. 

And so the spinal unit had its ribbon-cutting ceremony and Ludwig became its very first director. It started small: the unit had only 30 beds and it wasn’t well-resourced. However, after just a little while, it became clear how important this unit was and within six months he had 50 patients. What Ludwig learned as time in the unit went on irked him: care for paraplegic patients was not the best at this time, and most patients ended up dying not because of their injuries, but because of avoidable problems such as bedsores or urinary tract infections. Morale was low. But Ludwig cranked up his playlist of favorite tunes and boosted morale, making sure patients got moved around to keep their joints loose and to prevent pressure sores and infections as well as encouraged staff to turn those frowns upside down Patch Adams style. Then, he started up some rehabilitation and PT offerings for the patients’ routines because he believed sports specifically changed lives both physically and mentally. The goal was to have patients engage in some type of sporty activity to restore their range of motion as a form of self-care, and not just on Sundays. 

Aside from sports like archery for the athletic, woodworking, typing, and clock and watch repairing workshops were offered as well. Guttmann also created his own game that was a combination of wheelchair polo and hockey played in the wards as patients vs. staff AKA Ludwiggle wiggled his way around defense to shoot and score or whatever. A little healthy competition went a long way in the lives of the patients and got many moving and grooving so much so that a decade later sports became an important part of the hospital routine. The first sports club for the deaf opened in Germany in 1888 and according to our historical research, the earliest recorded wheelchair games in the UK took place at the Royal Star and Garter home in Surrey in 1923. So sports for impaired athletes had existed for many a year, but it was at Stoke Mandeville that Guttmann organized the first ever wheelchair games which started on July 29, 1948, which also happened to be the same day as the London Olympics opening ceremony. 

The ‘1948 Wheelchair Games’ was the first documented competition between disabled athletes and consisted of 16 patients AKA 14 men and 2 women (#represent) from Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Star and Garter Home for Injured War Vets. All athletes challenged each other in an organized game (set? Match?) of archery in hopes of leaving with the grand prize of the Challenge Shield. The competition was fierce, but the Star and Garter Home veterans left with the Gold and thus was the moment that the Paralympic movement was born. Guttmann the man decided to host the ‘Grand Festival of Paraplegic Sport’ (which eventually became the Stoke Mandeville Games) every year and with every new year word spread more and more through the halls of different spinal hospitals in England so new athletes joined the games and new sports were added to the program. 

By 1949, six teams competed in a tournament of wheelchair ‘netball’ AKA basketball at the games. Three years later, a team from the Military Rehab Centre at Aardenburg in the Netherlands joined the games and competed against all the Brits. What started as a way for patients at Ludwig’s one hospital to bond and stay in shape transformed into an international competition with Gold medals and Challenge Shields. Like we’re talking teams from as far as Canada, Australia, Finland, and Egypt coming to compete. By 1956 there were 18 different nations participating. That same year the Stoke Mandeville Games presented by Sir Ludwiggle Guttman were awarded the Sir Fearnley Cup by the International Olympic Committee for outstanding contribution to the Olympic ideal of bears, beets, battlestar galactica. JK. We mean: culture, sport, and education. The big 3. 

In 1957, all continents were represented and in 1958 any British athlete or team who wanted to compete had to first win in the national games to make the team. Ludwig’s vision expanded beyond the boundaries of Stoke Mandeville Hospital and even Britain itself. If the 1960 Olympic Games were held in Rome, couldn’t the Paralympic games be there as well? And that’s how the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held alongside the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. 400 athletes, 23 nations, 1 champion. JK there were many champions because there were many sports. This was his 9th year spearheading the competition and in this 9th year it was recognized as the first ever Paralympic Games. Back in Britain, Guttmann founded the British Sports Association for the Disabled and the International Spinal Cord Society. He retired from clinical work in 1966, but was always on time for sports o’clock. 

Moving forward, Guttmann hoped that every Paralympic Game that happened the same year as an Olympic year would take place in the same Olympic host country. This was the case for Japan in 1964, but not for Mexico in 1968 because of accessibility constraints so Tel Aviv rose to the occasion and hosted the athletes. The Stoke Mandeville Games started out as a way to inspire and challenge patients with spinal injuries to grow stronger and compete. But decades later two new classes of athletes were introduced to the Paralympic Games: visually impaired and amputees. 

Ludwig Guttmann AKA ‘Father of the Paralympic Movement’ received the Order of the British Empire and was knighted by Mary Berry herself when he retired in 1966. Oops, we mean Queen Elizabeth. In his later life, Guttmann continued to travel all over the world, a world from which he was once barred because of his Jewish background, to present about spinal injuries. Sir Ludwig Guttmann passed away on March 18, 1980 of heart failure following an earlier heart attack. 


Though major progress had been made for the Paralympics because of Ludwig Guttmann and the competition continuously grew every year, it was not always seen parallel to the Olympic games. But by the 1980s after Guttmann’s passing, relations between the International Olympic Committee and International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation finally became more collaborative and their partnership was established in 1989 by the creation of the International Paralympic Committee all because one cool German doc back in Britain who allegedly liked to listen to Jesse McCartney thought it would be good and healthy for his patients to load some longbows with arrows and see who could hit the bullseye best. Well it turns out, he was right.

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