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Biographical entry Guttman, Sir Ludwig (1899 - 1980)

Kt 1966; OBE 1950; CBE 1960; OStJ 1958; FRCS by election 1961; MD Freiburg 1924; FRSA 1956; MRCP 1947; FRCP 1962.

3 July 1899
Tost, Silesia, Germany
18 March 1980


Ludwig Guttman was born in Tost on 3 July 1899 into a modest Jewish family in the old German-Polish border province of Silesia, a coal mining area with character and speech comparable, it is said, to the Geordies and grew up a none too fit boy of small size. His father, Bernard, was a distiller and his mother was Dorothy Weissenberg, the daughter of a farmer. He was educated at the high school (gymnasium) Konigshutter, Upper Silesia. Towards the end of the first world war, he worked as an orderly in the local hospital where he first encountered problems of paraplegia among the miners and soldiers and was much disturbed about their hopeless future and the lack of any treatment.

He graduated from Freiburg University in 1924. He used to say that he had intended to study paediatrics but, on hearing a large crowd were waiting to be interviewed for one job, he applied to the neurology department instead! He went to Breslau as an assistant to Professor Otfrid Foerster, a distinguished neurologist and neurosurgeon. During 1928-29 he worked in the department of psychiatry at Hamburg University and started the first neurosurgical department in a general mental hospital. He returned to Breslau in 1933 to be Foerster's first assistant. Foerster's expectations and his demands from his assistants were reflected throughout Guttman's working life.

In 1933 Guttman became reader in neurology, but resigned the position four years later as a protest against the Nazis, although he was asked to stay on. He was immediately elected reader in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at the Jewish Hospital and by 1937 was medical director and responsible for medical and nursing education as well as chairman of the Jewish Medical Association. During this time he was able to help many people, Jews and Christian, to leave the country. He would admit healthy Jewish patients to his wards and teach them to simulate the physical signs of various neurological disorders! After the pogrom of 1938 in which the Jewish Hospital was involved, many doctors were arrested and Guttman was forbidden to leave Breslau. In fact, he left in 1939. The story of this escape with his wife and children is graphically described in a letter from Dr Raymond Greene to The Times on 29 March 1980.

The Society for Protection of Science and Learning gave him a grant for research at Balliol College, Oxford, where he worked on nerve regeneration in animals and clinical research in neurosurgery. At the beginning of the war, he was appointed to the peripheral nerve team at Wingfield Morris Orthopaedic Hospital, Oxford, working on animals but again having clinical responsibilities of wounded service men.

At the end of 1943, Guttman was asked to start a spinal unit at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital at Stoke Mandeville in anticipation of the large numbers of casualties which were expected following the allied invasion of Europe. Due to his drive and ability this unit developed into the largest spinal injury centre in Europe and the Commonwealth. As one of his friends wrote 'There can be no better memorial to him than the many thousands of disabled, not only in this country but throughout the world, who today are living useful lives, coping with their disability.' Without his efforts they would have been condemned to the human scrapheap. Some of Guttman's most notable activities included the foundation of the annual Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, the building of the Stoke Mandeville sports stadium for the disabled and the presidency and other offices of various organisations for the disabled throughout the world. Of his numerous publications perhaps the most important were the Handbuch der Neurologie, 1936, British medical history of world war II (spinal injuries), 1953, and Injuries to the spinal cord, Rothwell, Oxford 1973.

Sir Ludwig's work on the control of urinary infection and bedsores and on general rehabilitation, both physical and psychological, helped thousands of paralysed sufferers throughout the world. He was a man of prodigious energy and enthusiasm. He founded and edited Paraplegia, the journal of the International Medical Society of Paraplegia. The May issue of this journal in 1980 was entirely devoted to special papers and appreciations from present and previous colleagues to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Guttman married Else Samuel in 1927. His son Dennis is a physician at Peterborough and his daughter, Eva, is a physiotherapist. His wife died in 1973 and he died peacefully at his home on 18 March 1980, leaving his two children and five grandchildren.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1980, 280, 1021, 1233; Lancet 1980, 1, 724; The Times 20 March 1980].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England