The National Spinal Injury Centre

The new Spinal Unit was opened at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in March 1944 with Dr Guttmann in charge. It had 24 beds and one patient. It was initially very poorly resourced but the medical need was clear; within six months Guttmann had nearly 50 patients. 

"I hadn't at that stage heard the name "Ludwig Guttmann, but I soon found out... This little man appeared one day at my bedside and it was obvious that he was very important because it was quiet all around, nobody spoke..." Margaret Maughan, patient of Guttmann in 1959

Photo: Illustrative image for the '1944-1966' page
Watch Margaret Maughan talking about her treatment at Stoke Mandeville by Guttmann in 1959 here

 "My eyes were opened when we received one particular patient in 1956... He had had to wait eighteen months before he could get transferred to Stoke; and when he came to us he had every complication in the book; he was covered in pressure sores; his kidneys were full of stones; he was practically dead. And this man, working with poor staff who he had welded into a team that he could rely on (he had done it all himself): he cured him, sent him out into the world and back to a meaningful life. For me it was one of those Damascus moments;  The stories about him were true." Dr. John Silver

Photo:Guttmann teaching physiotherapists, 1947.

Guttmann teaching physiotherapists, 1947.

photo Picture Post


Treatment for paraplegics in England was still rudimentary. Patients with spinal injuries had a two-year life expectancy.  It was not the injury itself that was life-threatening but the twin dangers of pressure sores and urinary tract infections.  In The US in the 1930s Dr. Munro had begun to transform the treatment of spinal injuries by ensuring that patients were turned every two hours to prevent bedsores; this was a regime that Guttmann quickly copied.  



What was distinctive about Guttmann’s regime?

"Essentially if they went anywhere else for care, the spinal injuries patients died. He exerted a total, obsessive control over all aspects of care at the hospital, whether it was him coming round in the middle of the night to make sure that the nurses had turned patients, or checking on the quality of the cleaners’ work or that of the food served on the wards. Everything was his responsibility. This was such an enormous contrast with consultants in other hospitals." Dr John Silver


 An important part of the treatment was to ensure that patients maintained some hope of making progress and returning to their previous life.  Patients took part in activities to keep them active – a social rehabilitation as well as a medical one.  Workshops where the patients could do woodwork and clock and watch repairing were set up in the hospital.  But it was the encouragement of sporting activities that was to make the greatest impact on the wards.  The first sport was a wheelchair polo using walking sticks and a puck, but this was soon replaced by wheelchair basketball.  Archery was also popular; it relied on upper body strength which meant that paraplegics could compete with their non-disabled counterparts, and it was archery that was the first competitive sport at the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948.

The Importance of Physiotherapy    
Photo: Illustrative image for the '1944-1966' page

photo NSIC

"They had basically been told in their previous hospitals that they would never walk again and that they were going to die. As a result most of them were badly depressed and not interested in doing anything. They had got used to lying immobile for months on end. And then suddenly here were these nurses saying, ‘You can do this’. ‘We’ve got to get you up.’" Joan, nurse, 1948-52


Bedside manners

"He could be very curt. You didn’t dare say anything back to him. I remember once I told him I was bored and I got this long lecture about how I shouldn’t be bored because there was always something to do or be thinking about." Margaret, patient

Photo:"Poppa changed that split between nurses and physios and turned it into a team. When he first examined a patient everyone was required to be there: doctors, nurses, physios and orderlies; it was a very novel approach compared to any other hospital." Brom, physio

"Poppa changed that split between nurses and physios and turned it into a team. When he first examined a patient everyone was required to be there: doctors, nurses, physios and orderlies; it was a very novel approach compared to any other hospital." Brom, physio

photo J Silver

  Guttmann was singleminded about making the Stoke Mandeville spinal injuries centre a success. He fought doggedly for what he believed in and his staff and his patients were simultaneously devoted to him and terrified of his manner.


"He was very hands on in his treatment; he would come into OT to check on a patient’s progress and it was unusual for a consultant to do that. He was this figure, popping in at any time, watching you." Sally, patient

 An International Reputation

Guttmann was not only the “father of the Paralympic movement” but also a very important figure in the development of treatment for spinal injuries.  He became President of the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation and also founded the British Sports Association for the Disabled in 1961.  In that year he also became inaugural President of the International Medical Society of Paraplegia (now known as the International Spinal Cord Society) as well as being the first Editor of the Society’s journal, Paraplegia.  He travelled extensively for the Society’s meetings, which largely took place alongside the Games.

Guttmann received the OBE and the CBE from the Queen, and was knighted when he retired in 1966.

This page was added on 06/04/2011.
Comments about this page

Would love to get in touch with anyone who has more information regarding my father Mr William (known as Bill or Jock)Baggley and his involvement with Poppa and the hospital in the early years as I spent my early years in and aroungd the hospital

By Angela Ireland (formerly Baggley)
On 29/08/2012

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