Last night BBC2 broadcast a one-off drama “The Best of Men”,that showed the work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the1940s. The play was written by Lucy Gannon (Soldier Soldier) and Guttmann was played by the excellent Eddie Marsan (War Horse, Happy Go Lucky). Guttmann’s patients – all soldiers - are played by Rob Brydon, disabled actors David Proud and Ben Owen-Jones, and George McKay.
The play showed that spinal injury rehab was a highly unfashionable branch of medicine at the time. Virtually all of the patients were injured servicemen, and those that could be cured by surgery had been cured, while those who couldn’t respond to surgery were simply sedated and - quite literally- left to rot as pressure sores took their toll. The life expectancy of a spinal injury survivor at the time was just two years. Guttmann and his team were starved of resources as the medical establishment couldn’t see the point of what they were doing.
But Guttmann could empathise with these men because, like them, his life had been shattered. He was a German Jewish refugee who had already lost his career, his country and most of his family. He had fought back to establish a new career in a new country, and he knew that if his patients were to lead fulfilled lives, he had to motivate these men to fight back in thesame way. Sport was just one of his weapons, sheer force of personality was another
Guttmann’s story is an example of how immigration has enriched the United Kingdom. Without immigration we’d have no Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah or Ludwig Guttmann, and possibly no Paralympic movement.
There’s an exhibition about Guttmann’s work at London’s Jewish Museum until September 16th.