Oxford's part in the birth of the Paralympics

thisisoxfordshire: Sir Ludwig Guttmann Sir Ludwig Guttmann

Paralympic fervour has gripped the nation, putting the name of its founder, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, into the spotlight.

But were it not for a charity that helped refugee academics flee Nazi Germany and a welcome from the people of Oxford, he might never have had the chance to create the inspirational event.

The Jewish neurosurgeon fled Nazi Germany and, with the help of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara) – then known as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning – moved to Oxford.

Later, as director of the new spinal injury centre at Stoke Mandeville, Sir Ludwig devised methods of care which saved countless lives as well as establishing the then Stoke Mandeville Games which became the Paralympics.

Cara’s member Laura Broadhurst said: “Without the help of Cara and Oxford, Sir Ludwig Guttmann would have been killed, and thousands of spinal injury patients in Britain and across the world would have continued to languish and die in hospital beds.”

The charity gave the doctor and his family £250, the equivalent of £10,000 today, and helped secure him a research position at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

He was taken in by the Master of Balliol College, Lord Lindsay, and he and his family spent some weeks living with him in the Master’s Lodge until they moved to a house in Lonsdale Road.

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Karen Simpson, formerly of Oxfordshire Theatre Company, is putting on an Arts Council backed production called The Incredible Doctor Guttman at Oxford’s Pegasus Theatre in November. She said: “Most people didn’t really know his name before, he was an unsung hero.

Among the audience at a rehearsal was the doctor’s godson, Doug Irvine.

Mr Irvine, who lives in Bicester and works for Oxfordshire County Council 's IT department, was the first child born to two paraplegics, Andina Beryl Irvine, known as Robin, and John Irvine.

His parents met at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and were under Sir Ludwig’s care. If it hadn’t been for him, Mr Irvine would never have been born.

Both competed in archery in the Paralympics, with his mother winning two bronze medals and a silver.

Mr Irvine, now 58, said: “When I turned up on the scene he wasn’t the hands-on doctor that he had been but he was the head honcho and it was a big thing when he used to go round the ward.

“He was an exceedingly busy bloke so I didn’t see him that often and he wasn’t a godfather in the way other people were. I think it was because he thought it was a good idea.”

He said that although Sir Ludwig never visited the family home in Hertfordshire, he had “always been there”.

Mr Irvine bears the doctor’s name, ha ving been christened Douglas Ludwig Struan Keith John Irvine, with four of his Christian names coming from the doctors who helped his parents.

  • Sir Ludwig, who worked as a neurologist, first met a patient with spinal cord injury in 1917 while working in Germany.

During violent attacks on Jewish people during Kristallnacht in November 1938, he opened his hospital in Breslau to all, saving dozens of Jews from arrest and deportation.
With the assistance of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, he and his family fled to Oxford in 1939.
In 1943, he was asked to establish the National Spinal Injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, near Aylesbury, and was appointed its director when it opened in 1944.
He believed sport was an important therapeutic tool and organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled people in 1948 – in parallel with the London 1948 summer Olympics.
The event grew in tandem with the  Olympics, officially becoming the Paralympic Games in 1984, although the 9th International Stoke Mandeville Games in Rome in 1960 is now regarded as the first true Paralympics.

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