Blog Archive

11 May 2016

A True Hero For All Nations and Ages: Dr. Ludwig Guttman, Creator of the Paralympics

This is generally a classic movie blog, but I do have to highly recommend an almost brand-new British TV movie called (rather dully, I feel) "The Best of Men." It's about the great -- and determined -- doctor who pioneered the active treatment of spinal injuries with servicemen injured in WW2. Most people haven't heard of him today, but they should have, because he was a true hero.

Eddie Marsan as Dr. Guttman

Dr. Ludwig Guttmann was a German refugee from the Nazis who settled in England. Since he was a spinal injury specialist, he was put in charge of that sector of one of the major hospitals treating the wounded in Stoke Mandeville. And there he led a revolution.

Until the early 40's, the prognosis for any paraplegic was poor; medical professionals felt that nothing could really be done for those who had lost the use of their limbs except to provide them with painkillers and wait for them to die. The idea of what we now call "mainstreaming," or integrating people with disabilities into everyday life, never occurred to anyone. (A personal note: My mother's older brother was paraplegic due to cerebral palsy, and it severely restricted his opportunities, though he was a bright, charming person, and would have been perfectly capable of pursuing higher education and a career. But in the 20's and 30's there was no such thing as a wheelchair ramp in a public school.)
The real Dr. Guttman

Dr. Guttman, who seemed at first to be quite mild-mannered, would have none of this fatalism. Turning the customary routines of the hospital staff topsy-turvy, he encouraged -- no, he challenged -- the patients to sit up as soon as possible, to feed and dress themselves, to exercise vigorously to develop upper body strength and the ability to get in and out of a wheelchair by themselves, to convey themselves where they wanted to go, and to essentially aim for the same things in life a "normal" person does. It's hard to overestimate how revolutionary this was, and it stirred up furious opposition.Older doctors and nurses sincerely felt that Guttman would harm their patients, and cause them unnecessary distress, so they fought back. But the patients -- most of them casualties of World War 2, and thus young and fairly vigorous men except for their disability, responded at first tentatively, and then with enthusiasm. A new world opened up for them.

The beautifully written script, by Lucy Gannon, tells the story with deceptive simplicity; the effects of the new regime on everyone, from the doctors and nurses ro the patients and their families, unfold gradually, like a slow sunrise. And, as usual with BBC produtions, there are some wonderful performances, starting with Eddie Marsan as Dr. Guttmann, Niamh Cusack as a skeptical senior nurse, and Rob Brydon as a cynical patient.
The patients play football for the first time
The movie is available through several sources on DVD and instant streaming, including Amazon and Netflix.

The Best of Men 2012

Dr. Guttman and Stoke Mandeville

Dr. Guttmann on Wikipedia

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