In 1917 Ludwig Guttmann had his first meeting with paraplegia. The young German had just finished school and was a volunteer at a hospital. There he came across a strong, young coal miner with a fractured spine. At the time patients with such injuries often didn't live long because of medical complications and the types of treatment available.
Guttmann went on to become a neurosurgeon but in 1939 had to leave Germany in a hurry. He was sacked from his job as a neurosurgeon and lecturer because he was Jewish. Penniless, he left Nazi Germany for England with his family and knowledge.
A new chapter in treatment
In 1941 Guttmann was put in charge of a special, new centre for patients with spinal chord injuries. The new centre was created after a review had looked into how patients with spinal chord injuries were treated and rehabilitated.
Then in 1943, Guttmann was made director of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital at Stoke Mandeville in England. When it opened the following year, Guttmann introduced a whole new approach to the way spinal chord injury patients were treated. Exercise was designed to give patients strong upper bodies and make them mentally strong. His aim was to get patients back to being capable and respected members of society. Changing the public's attitudes to people with spinal cord injuries was a big challenge at the time.
Strong bodies, strong minds
Guttmann believed in the idea of sport playing a role in rehabilitation. He thought up a sport called wheelchair polo. He also introduced wheelchair archery and wheelchair netball for war veterans who had acquired a disability. These activities were successful at the centre and practiced regularly.
On the first day of the 1948 London Olympic Games, an archery contest with 16 patients took place on the grass outside the centre. This competition was to become known as the Stoke Mandeville Games. Guttmann decided he wanted his games to be on the same scale as the Olympic Games.
In 1952 the Stoke Mandeville Games became an international sports event when a team of Dutch paraplegic war veterans participated in the competition.
Eight years later, an international games event for athletes with a disability was held for the first time when Rome hosted the Olympic Games in 1960. Around 350 male and female athletes with disabilities, from more than 20 countries, competed straight after the Olympic Games. All the athletes used wheelchairs.
In 1984 the International Olympic Committee officially gave the competition the name Paralympic Games. Today the Paralympics has 21 sports and thousands of competitors. The Paralympics have inspired generations and changed lives.
A legacy that grows
Guttmann directed the National Spinal Injuries Centre for 22 years and was knighted by the Queen in 1966. He died in 1980 and is recognised worldwide as a pioneer in the rehabilitation of spinal injury patients. He is credited for promoting the opening of many paraplegic centres worldwide, with centres named after him.
His vision was his treatment of disability, which radically changed lives. His enduring legacy is the ever increasing number of athletes with disabilities who take their abilities to the world.
The London 2012 Paralympics begin on 29 August.