Nick Webborn shares his thoughts on Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann's personality, his work as a doctor and his significance in the world of disabled sports.

Audio of Professor Nick Webborn's interview

February 2018


What job do you do? And what's your connection with the Paralympics and disability sport?

I am Chair of the British Paralympic Association and Professor of Sport and Exercise Medicine at the University of Brighton. In 1981 I broke my neck playing rugby when I was a doctor in the Royal Air Force and I spent 8 months at the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Since then I've attended 10 Paralympic Games, summer and winter either as the Great Britain team doctor or with the IPC medical committee.  I represented Great Britain in the world team cup in wheelchair tennis. 

What do you know about Ludwig Guttmann as a person? What was he like to work with? What was it like to be his patient?

I first heard about Sir Ludwig 'Poppa' Guttmann when I was an in-patient in Stoke Mandeville. He had passed away two years earlier and had long since retired from clinical practice, but he was still revered within the hospital and still much talked about by the staff.  He was clearly a legend in the true meaning of the word.  Last summer, I was honoured to visit the town of his birth formerly known as Tost in Germany but now Toszek in Poland. Putting patients first was clearly his ethos and his patients loved him for it even if he demanded a lot from them too. I was very privileged to meet his daughter Eva during the London 2012 Paralympic games where she was the Honorary Mayor of the Paralympic Village.

Why did Guttmann include physical exercise in his treatment of patients with spinal injuries? How did this fit in with his wider treatment philosophy and practice?

Probably and most importantly, Guttmann just recognised those with spinal cord injuries as normal people worthy of the same recognition.  It was felt then that the treatment of paraplegics was a waste of time. He recognised the importance of physical activity for health and used sport as a motivation. Guttmann was also fully aware of the positive psychological benefits of physical activity to get a sense of purpose. He felt that sport helped to develop self-discipline, self-respect, a competitive spirit and comradeship. As he put it mental attitudes that are essential for the disabled person’s integration into the community.

What was Guttmann's role in turning the Stoke Mandeville Games into the Paralympics?

On the opening day of the 1948 Olympic Games, Guttmann organised an archery competition between his patients at Stoke Mandeville and those at the star and Garter Home. Just 16 competitors but it was a start. 4 years later, a team from a rehabilitation centre in Holland attended and there started the international Stoke Mandeville games. Guttmann later said I foresaw the time when this sports event would be truly international the Stoke Mandeville games will achieve world Fame as the Disabled Persons equivalent to the Olympic Games. At Rio 2016 over 4000 competitors took part in the third largest sporting event in the world.

You said that you had never met Dr Guttmann - if you could, what would you say to him?

Firstly, I would thank him for his massive contribution to medicine and sport, not only the improved health care but for developing this wonderful movement which has helped shape and change attitudes to disability.  I would also tell him about the extraordinary performance athletes with disabilities are now achieving. I think he’d be surprised, he was quoted as saying once that he did not think it was healthy for someone in a wheelchair to do a marathon yet now they can do it quicker than an able-bodied person.