Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Tost, Upper Silesia, Germany in 1899 Ludwig Guttmann was the eldest of four children and the only boy.
At the age of 18, he volunteered to be an orderly at the local Accident Hospital for Coalminers where he witnessed an incident which left a profound impression.
Guttmann became interested in a strong, young miner admitted with a broken back and paralysis below the waist only to discover the miner's outlook was so bleak that death was expected within weeks. Guttmann could hardly believe it but the miner was left encased in plaster and moved away from other patients, where he developed urinary tract infections and sepsis. Five weeks later he was dead. ‘Although I saw many more victims suffering the same fate,’ Guttmann said, ‘it was the picture of that young man which remained indelibly fixed in my memory.’ (‘Spirit of Stoke Mandeville’ by Susan Goodman, Collins, 1986).
In April 1918 Guttmann started medical studies at the University of Breslau, now Wroclaw, Poland, passing his finals five years later in 1923. Guttmann had intended to work in paediatrics but when his efforts to find work in this particular speciality failed he reluctantly took a job in Neurology and Neurosurgery - a decision that would affect the rest of his life, and those of countless others he came into contact with.
In January 1933 Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but Guttmann, thanks to his growing international reputation, had a number of offers to work outside Germany.
Together with his wife, Else, and two young children, Dennis and Eva, the Guttmanns headed for England arriving in Dover on March 14 1939. Once in Britain the Guttmanns settled in Oxford where Guttmann busied himself with various research projects. (Goodman, Collins, 1986).
As time passed, and war progressed, the Government felt an influx of paralysed servicemen, as a result of a push on the second front planned for 1944, inevitable. In preparation they decided a special spinal ward to cater for casualties should be opened in readiness.
In September 1943 Guttmann was asked if he would like to take charge. He said he would provided he was free to implement his own theories on how best to treat patients who had paraplegia.There were two possible options for the new unit- Basingstoke or Stoke Mandeville.
Guttmann preferred Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire and so, on February 1 1944, he took up his new post.
The unit was called Ward X. There were just 26 beds.