The Best of Men

One of the joys and challenges of headship is giving regular school assemblies.  They are precious occasions.  Addressing one thousand pupils for 15 minutes is the equivalent of 250 hours of combined learning time per assembly.  In a busy school this valuable time cannot be squandered, but keeping assemblies fresh and meaningful is not easy.

Just occasionally, I chance on a life story that is so remarkable and inspiring that it has to be shared with the school.  It was thus an easy decision to use the start of term assembly to explore the work of the incredible Dr Sir Ludwig Guttmann.

Guttmann’s story is even more relevant for The Perse given the school’s long history of producing medics, and the significance of our former Jewish boarding house (Hillel) in supporting refugees in World War Two.

Ludwig Guttmann grew up in early twentieth century Germany where he trained as a doctor.  He became interested in the treatment of patients with disabilities, and particularly those who had suffered spinal injuries.  This was a neglected area of medicine.   At the time, patients with partial paralysis were often incased in plaster, sedated with morphine, and effectively left to die.  The few who survived were institutionalised and condemned to live meaningless existences with no hope of improvement.

Guttmann’s medical career in Germany was interrupted by the Nazi regime and their refusal to let Jewish doctors practice in state hospitals.  Guttmann’s belief that disabled patients could be rehabilitated and lead successful lives also put him at odds with Nazi teaching which depicted those with disabilities as unfit burdens on society.

In 1939, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics provided Guttmann and his family with a visa and the finances to come to Britain.  He settled in Oxford where he began work at the John Radcliffe Infirmary.

Initially as Germans Guttmann and his family faced some suspicion and hostility, but over time he established his medical reputation.  In 1944 Guttmann took over a moribund ward for paraplegic patients in Stoke Mandeville hospital.  This move was to change the face of disability forever.

Dr Guttmann believed in human spirit and was not prepared to write his patients off.  Through medical treatment, physiotherapy, psychology, and competitive sport Guttmann and his team began to rehabilitate paraplegic patients.  Guttmann believed in his patients and they started to believe in themselves.

Guttmann campaigned tirelessly to improve the resourcing of his wards and set demanding targets for his patients.  He simply would not tolerate them lying in beds and waiting to die.  All his patients were to be given purposeful activities.  Some played sport; others learnt a trade; the important thing was to be busy and productive.  Famously it was in 1948 that Dr Guttmann founded the first Paralympics when he held the Stoke Mandeville Games for the disabled timed to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics.

If you haven’t watched the wonderfully moving and at times very funny BBC dramatisation of Guttmann’s life – The Best Of Men (, then do, you will not be disappointed.

For The Perse audience of 2012 Guttmann is a wonderful role model to emulate.  He dedicated his life to the service of others; he refused to give up in the face of adversity; he saw value in everybody; and he set and achieved targets other thought impossible.  His tireless commitment to his vocation overcame institutional and societal barriers and revolutionised both the treatment of disability and our attitudes to it.  He was indeed one of the best of men….

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