Author: Sam Brady, 20th July 2020

Dr Guttmann and the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital are known worldwide for revolutionising how those with spinal cord injuries were treated. Medically, Guttmann introduced small but vital practices that drastically reduced the morality rates of those with spinal cord injuries. However, an imperative part of the revolutionary treatment at Stoke Mandeville was the focus on rehabilitation. It is no secret that Guttmann wanted his patients to be able to reintegrate into society; famously, his philosophy towards treating severely disabled people was “To transform a hopeless and helpless spinally paralysed individual into a taxpayer.”[1] Whilst his phrasing could be objected to, his commitment to this idea could not be criticised. For instance, an emphasis was put on vocational training, giving patients the opportunity to develop skills in woodwork, shoe-repair and engraving. Obviously, the most notable example of this focus on rehabilitation was the development of disabled people’s sport at Stoke Mandeville. It had long been known that sport or physical exercise was linked to a better physical and psychological quality of life, and Guttmann aimed to introduce sports for his wheelchair-using patients.[2] Sporting activity ranged from simple ball games to wheelchair basketball and archery, and competitions were set up between other spinal cord injuries centres nationally and internationally, eventually leading to the birth of the Paralympic Games. These rehabilitation efforts greatly altered the way paraplegic and tetraplegic patients at Stoke Mandeville saw themselves and emphasised that lives were not finished or meaningless due to their impairment.

However, psychological rehabilitation was another important part of patients’ treatment at Stoke Mandeville. In 1947 Guttmann introduced a magazine, to be written and edited by and for paraplegic patients, intended to alleviate boredom according to Dr Julie Anderson.[3] The Cord reached 33 volumes, and well-preserved copies of each issue can be found at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Archive in Aylesbury, UK. These copies were bound together in a book-like format, seemingly having been collated by Joan Scruton, Guttmann’s first secretary, and who later became a leading figure in the organisation of the games at Stoke Mandeville. Amusingly, a volume from 1954 found in these bound collections had “To be returned to Dr Guttmann” written across the top, suggesting that staff and patients alike read the magazine (but it is unclear if Guttmann ever got this copy back before it was archived).

[1] Spirit of Stoke Mandeville, Susan Goodman, p165
[2] It should be noted that these sports were not created at Stoke Mandeville but introduced as part of the rehabilitation programmes.
[3] `Turned into Taxpayers', Julie Anderson, p467

Front cover of The Cord Magazine in 1947

The cover to the first issue of The Cord 
(Volume 1, No. 1, 1947)

Front cover of The Cord Magazine in 1947

The cover to an anniversary issue of The Cord (Volume 6, No.4, 1954). Note about returning the issue to Dr Guttmann can be made out at the top

Like the Games at Stoke Mandeville, this publication became known nationally, and attracted many to the centre.[1] Whilst The Cord may not have shared the monumental impact of the Stoke Mandeville Games, to me this journal signals many important facets of life at the National Spinal Injuries Centre. The most notable of which being a centralised platform for disabled people to voice their experiences and communicate with one another. Many of the early contents of the journal included personal experiences, poetry, story competitions and ‘News from the Spinal World’. One story that stood out to me can be found in the 4th issue of the journal, released in 1948. Titled ‘Two Smart Girls’, this one-page article detailed how Pat Theobald, a patient at Stoke Mandeville, found a way to smoke without the use of her hands. Fellow patient Bunty Noon used her workshop training at the hospital to work a piece of metal into a combined cigarette holder and ashtray. This short piece not only highlights the usefulness of the vocational programmes at the Centre but documented how disabled people often had to create or modify their own apparatus to carry out everyday tasks, an idea important to my overall research.

[1] Spirit of Stoke Mandeville, Susan Goodman, p129

The Cord (Volume 1, No.4, 1948)

It should be noted, however, that The Cord is not necessarily a unique publication. There are other examples of publications made by and for disabled people, such as the Toomey J Gazette, which began as a newsletter for polio survivors in Cleveland, Ohio, and later became an internationally circulated magazine. This magazine was spearheaded by disabled women, and was primarily concerned helping polio survivors adapt their homes for their new lives.[1] Bess Williamson’s book, Accessible America highlights that this magazine served as both a social network and a place for disabled people to share their advice on products and DIY solutions.[2]  In the Gazette, for instance, instructions on how to make a variety of homemade technologies could be found, such as custom wheelchair ramps, different types of faucet turners and an array of mouthsticks to suit different impairments.[3] 

My point here is that, historically, magazines and journals were incredibly important for disabled people to communicate and share ideas with one-another in a time before social media. In the post-war period, the mass of people recently injured by war and disease created a demand to share this knowledge, and overtly medicalised views of the disabled body often did not consider disabled life outside of the hospital. Furthermore, these publications gave an opportunity for disabled people to create and distribute their own experiences and art, something very notable for the time. Unfortunately, it does not seem that much has been written about The Cord, or disabled people’s magazines from this period more generally. Thankfully, the preserved copies of The Cord will become accessible again once archival services return to normal, and hopefully they will become digitised so more people will be able to discover this aspect of Stoke Mandeville’s legacy. I hope to do more work around the stories in The Cord in future editions of this blog or elsewhere, as I think it’s a really interesting source of information about the people at Stoke Mandeville.

[1] 'Heads, You Win': Newsletters and Magazines of the Polio Nation, Jacqueline Foertsch
[2] Accessible America, A history of Disability and Design, Bess Williamson, p76
[3] Accessible America, A history of Disability and Design, Bess Williamson, pp 85-88 


  • Julie Anderson, `Turned into Taxpayers': Paraplegia, Rehabilitation and Sport at Stoke Mandeville, 1944-56 (Journal of Contemporary History, 2003, Volume 38, No.3)
  • Jacqueline Foertsch, "Heads, You Win": Newsletters and Magazines of the Polio Nation, (Disability Studies Quarterly, Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3.)
  • Susan Goodman, Spirit of Stoke Mandeville, (Collins, London, 1986)
  • Bess Williamson, Accessible America, A history of Disability and Design (New York University Press, New York, 2019)

Image © IWAS (The International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation) and Buckinghamshire Archives