Meet Ludwig Guttmann – the Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany to set up the Paralympic Games

Eva Loeffler tells the remarkable story of her father - a brilliant neurologist who dreamt of a disabled Games held in parallel with the Olympics

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Eva Loeffler doesn’t remember her father being the most gifted of sportsmen. “He wasn’t an athletic man. He was a short, stocky chap. He couldn’t swim and he couldn’t even ride a bicycle. I remember him cycling into a brick wall and announcing, ‘That’s it’,” she recalls with an affectionate laugh.

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And yet you could argue that her father, Professor Ludwig Guttmann, had a more profound effect on sport than anyone else in the 20th century. Nicknamed “Poppa”, he is regarded as the father of the Paralympics. Without his blend of vision, energy and sheer bloody-mindedness, London might not be welcoming the world’s greatest disabled athletes to the Olympic Park on 29 August.

Guttmann was a brilliant Jewish neurologist who grew up in Germany but was forced to flee at the outbreak of the Second World War. Working at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire towards the end of the war, he took an interest in servicemen with spinal injuries, devising a revolutionary rehabilitation programme. One of his ideas was to encourage patients to play sport – a pioneering notion that led to the world’s first sporting competition for disabled people, the Stoke Mandeville Games, which ran parallel to the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

The story of Guttmann and his Games is told in a new BBC drama, The Best of Men, written by Lucy Gannon and starring Eddie Marsan as Guttmann and Rob Brydon as one of his earliest patients at Stoke Mandeville. It’s a story that will move and inspire, but it began long before the setting of Gannon’s drama, in 1930s Germany.

Eva, now 80, was six when the family fled the growing threat of the Nazis. One of her few memories of Germany is of a trip she took with her mother one day in 1938. “My mother and I used to go on a bus to a liberal synagogue in Breslau, it was quite a big building. One of my earliest memories was seeing the blackened shell of the synagogue after it had been burnt down. I didn’t understand the implications,” she says.

Her father’s defiance of the Nazis during this period often put him in danger. As early as 1933 the Nazis had issued an edict that no Jewish doctors or academics could work in hospitals or teach. They were reclassified as “treaters of the sick”. Guttmann had been put in charge of the Jewish hospital in Breslau and used the institution to help others being persecuted.

“Soon after Kristallnacht in November 1938, a lot of Jewish men came to the hospital to hide,” Eva explains. “The Gestapo came and asked my father why there had been more than 60 admissions in one night. He told them that if there is something neurologically wrong with a person and there is any stress, it will make them worse. A German officer went from bed to bed and my father made a diagnosis up for each of them. He also stood behind the Nazis and made faces so that the men could do the same thing and he could say they were having a fit or drooling. He saved many of their lives.”

Ironically, the Nazis paved the way for Guttmann’s escape when he was sent to Portugal on behalf of Hitler’s Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop. A high-ranking official in the Portuguese government had a suspected brain tumour. They wanted to be on good terms so they sent my father, who was the best-known brain surgeon in Germany. He was immediately given a passport. It turned out that the official didn’t have a brain tumour, but Guttmann was able to return to Germany via London. There he went to see a charity that was working to get Jews out of Germany, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, which his wife had written to for help. “You could not leave Germany unless you had a visa, and you could not get a visa unless you had a job in England. They told my father that visas had already been sent to Berlin. This must have been early in 1939, because in March that year we left for England.”

The family may have been safe from persecution, but life in England still had its difficulties. “They got my father a position at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford doing research. German doctors weren’t allowed to operate, so he researched peripheral nerve injuries,” Eva says. He also spent much of his time trying to persuade Winston Churchill of Hitler’s plan to send millions of Jews to their deaths in the concentration camps.

“He went to see a great friend of Churchill, and told him about the concentration camps. It was something they didn’t know about. This was in 1939. He knew because in 1938 when he was still in Germany, people had come back from the camps with horrendous stories,” explains Eva.

It was in 1944 that Guttmann’s fortunes changed and he was given the role that would define his career. “At that time, they knew the second front was going to be opened and that there would be a lot of spinal cord injuries, so the Minister for Pensions decided to open a spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville. I’m sure they must have asked quite a few British doctors before they asked my father. He started in 1944 with two orderlies and a nurse,” says Eva.

Guttmann drew on friendships with leading medical figures to try revolutionary treatments, for instance, the new “wonder drug” penicillin, being developed from Alexander Fleming’s discovery by the scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at Oxford University.

“Lady Florey was also a scientist and she used to bring penicillin to Stoke Mandeville for my father to use. It had absolutely amazing results because nobody had any resistance to it then.”

Guttmann also developed other treatments. “He started turning patients every two hours from side to side and front to back. That had an impact as well, because a lot died from pressure sores,” she says. “He saw soldiers in physiotherapy throwing medicine balls around to strengthen their arms. So he started wheelchair polo, but it got too vicious because they had these little mallets! Then he realised basketball was a good sport. He also introduced archery and fencing.”

By 1948, Guttmann was so convinced of the value of sport that he had organised a special Games to coincide with the Olympics in cash-strapped London. As The Best of Men reveals, it was an equally modest affair, run mainly by volunteers including Eva herself.

“I was employed to pull arrows out of the archery targets. I remember carrying huge trays with glasses of beer for the competitors. They drank more than a few. There was a great camaraderie and atmosphere,” she says.

In the years that followed, Guttmann was the driving force behind regular competitions at Stoke Mandeville and beyond. In 1956, the International Olympic Committee recognised his work and awarded him the Fearnley Cup for services to the Olympic movement. Guttmann led the British contingent to Rome in 1960 when, for the first time, a disabled Games was held in the same venues as the summer Olympics.

Her father was driven by a desire to change society’s view of disabled people and what they were capable of achieving. It meant that he didn’t suffer fools gladly – either at work or at home.

“He was the boss. Everybody did what he said. He had a temper. He was very, very driven,” explains Eva. “We hardly ever went on holidays. We used to have fun together but he spent a lot of time in his study. He wasn’t interested in making us do sports, he was more interested in academic achievements. My brother became a doctor and I went into physiotherapy.”

When Guttmann died in 1980, aged 80, his dream of a disabled Games held in parallel with the Olympics was still tantalisingly out of reach. It wasn’t until Seoul in 1988 that the IOC began running the Olympics and Paralympics together.

Since his death, his daughter has carried on his work, primarily as vice-president of the WheelPower organisation, formerly the British Wheelchair Sports Association. She was awarded an OBE in 2009. A few weeks ago, Eva travelled to Stoke Mandeville to see the unveiling of a statue of her father. She also offered advice to The Best of Men during filming.

The fact that a major drama about his life was being made by the BBC would have left her father shaking his head in disbelief, she says. Most of all, however, he would have been deeply moved by events about to unfold in east London and the fact that the event he effectively created now enjoys equal stature with the Olympics.

“I remember him saying: ‘I dream of the time when there will be an Olympic Games for the disabled.’ That was in the 1950s. He dreamed of it, he could see it happening,” she says, her voice faltering. And it did. The Paralympics are his memorial. 

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Watch Rob Brydon and Eddie Marsan in The Best of Men – tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2