A History of Wheelchair Sports
Sir Ludwig Guttmann
(by Jan Godfrey & Marilee Weisman)

If you or I had sustained a spinal cord injury prior to World War II, our chances of surviving longer than three years would have been a meager 20 percent. Should it happen today, there would be an 80 percent likelihood of our living our full life expectancy. The reason for this dramatic change: the efforts and dedication of one man, Sir Ludwig Guttmann.

Born in Germany in 1899, Sir Ludwig qualified as a doctor in 1923, specializing in neurology and rising quickly to the top of his field. Within a decade he was renowned as one of Germany's best brain surgeons. But the 1930's brought With them sorrowful times for the Jewish population in Germany. After assisting many of his people to escape from the Nazis, Sir Ludwig fled from his home­land to the nation where he was to leave his mark on history.

England welcomed this distinguished doctor, at first offering him a post as research fellow in the Department of Neurosurgery, Oxford University, and then at the Peripheral Nerve Injury Unit, Wingfield Moris Orthopaedic Hospital, Oxford.

In 1944 the British government asked him to set up a spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury, to care for the large number of war-wounded veterans/On February 1, 1944, the center opened.

"When I first arrived at Stoke, those with spinal cord injuries were thought of as hopeless cripples," Sir Ludwig recalls. Bladder and subsequent kidney malfunction as well as infected bed sores were considered inevitable complications. "I did not accept this defeatist attitude. My philosophy was that these complications could not only be controlled but altogether avoided."

He was also aware of another problem: "Paralyzed individuals lose self-confidence and activity of mind and personal dignity. They become encapsulated and anti-social."

Sir Ludwig set up a new program of treatment that was designed not only to prolong life but to help the disabled patients to over­come their psychological difficulties and to become useful and respected members of society. Sport, he believed, would encourage them to make the most of their remaining physical capabilities, provide much-needed exercise and restore mental equilibrium. He introduced a few games — darts, archery, snooker and table ten­nis— and soon followed up with team sports like wheelchair polo and basketball. Hospital life was no longer restricted and boring. As one patient put it: "We're so busy in this bloody place we haven't got time to be ill."

The therapeutic value of the program soon became evident, and as the patients regained strength, coordination, and confidence they began to find regular work and a place in the outside world.

A milestone event took place on July 28, 1948, when 16 paralyzed British ex-servicemen and women engaged in an archery competition on the fields of Stoke. This was the first of the Stoke Mandeville Games, now an annual event.

"That day also saw the opening ceremony of the 1948 Olympic games in London," Sir Ludwig says. "The coincidence gave me an idea which I voiced at the 1949 Stoke Mandeville Games. Looking into the future, I prophesied that the time would come when this -The Mandeville Games would achieve world fame as the disabled person's equivalent of the Olympics."

Many Wheelchair sports which are enjoyed today, originated at Stoke Mandeville in the 1944 to 1947 period. These included table tennis, javelin and archery, water polo and a game called netball in 1947 which actually was far closer to the original rules of basketball than the basketball played everywhere else in the world at that time or todays modern rule version.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann retained the original scoring system that James Naismith used in 1891, that being 1 point per basket. The game also featured no backboards and no dribbling all original basketball rules. This form of the game was played till 1955 in Stoke Mandeville (LABANOWICH &THIBOUTOT 1991, 49). The players used heavy armchairs with front wheel propulsion in the 1940’s. The chairs were very poor for team wheelchair sports in that era..

The sports were iniated of course as a form recreation for the recently injured servicemen from WWII. But helped develop the foundation for the modern game played today


Excerpt from Paralympics: Where Heroes Come©, by Dr. Robert Steadward and Cynthia Peterson. Edmonton, Alberta: One Shot Holdings Ltd., 1997.

Chapter 2: Sir Ludwig Guttmann - Father of the Paralympics

How did the Paralympics begin? Competitive sport for athletes with a disability is a relatively new phenomenon. It is generally agreed that the Paralympic movement towards competitive sports for individuals with a disability began in 1948 in Stoke Mandeville, United Kingdom.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a neurosurgeon, began work at Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944. Joan Scruton (later secretary general of the International Coordinating Committee or ICC) became his secretary and assistant. She recalls the story Sir Ludwig told her about his inspiration. "In the First World War he was a medical orderly; he wasn't old enough to go in as a soldier. He said a patient was brought in, a big, strong man with a spinal cord injury, and they put him at the end of the ward. They put screens around him, saying there would really not be a need to go near him to treat his sores, as he would be dead in a few months. Something in Sir Ludwig rebelled."

Dealing with limited resources, inexperienced staff, and this prevailing attitude that rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injuries was impossible, Sir Ludwig looked for ways to inspire and integrate the ex-soldiers in his care back into society. Joan Scruton recalls that success did not come easily. "Some of these soldiers, or sailors, or airmen coming in from the battlefront were in terrible condition. Not only had they spinal cord injuries, but by the time they got to us they had terribly infected bedsores, kidney infection, and so forth."

As part of his innovative treatment program, Guttmann made work an everyday part of each patient's activities. He wanted his patients to resume normal life as quickly as possible. Given that most of his patients were young, formerly active individuals, sport was part of that normal life too.

Joan Scruton recalls, "One of the main treatments was sport, even when they were lying in bed. We had a quartermaster sergeant who was seconded from the army to do sport with the patients. When they were lying in bed he would throw a medicine ball to them and they would throw it back to get the strength in their arms."

Sir Ludwig realized that organized sports could work wonders in motivating patients to exercise, especially the young and formerly active war veterans he had in his care. Joan Scruton says, "Sport was of course critical to get their strength; their future depended on being able to lift themselves into the chair. The second point was psychological because when a patient came in, they stayed sometimes three or four years to get over their sores and kidney infections and to rehabilitate."

Joan Scruton remembers how the sergeant and a patient started the first team sport: wheelchair polo. "They got in wheelchairs, and they had shortened sticks, and a disk for the puck, and they went up and down an empty ward hitting this puck. It was played against the physiotherapists, and later against the local football clubs." After some players received minor injuries in the fierce competition, polo was replaced by basketball, just as furious a sport but with less risk of damage.

Since Sir Ludwig made sport mandatory, it soon formed an essential part of the program at Stoke Mandeville. Miss Scruton recalls, "They had to do a sport. It was part of the treatment. It was not a question of would you like to do archery; no, it was part of the treatment, like taking their medicine, or doing physiotherapy. And Sir Ludwig would make sure that they did it."

Archery competition led to the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed, held on July 28, 1948, and involving 16 competitors. It was no accident that these games opened on the same day as the Olympics. Sir Ludwig wanted his games to have a larger forum. He envisioned international games: Olympics for athletes with disabilities. The Stoke Mandeville Games were held yearly after 1948, and became international in 1952 with the addition of a Dutch team of competitors. That same year the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation, or ISMGF (later the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation, or ISMWSF) was created; it decided the games should be held in the country hosting the Olympics. And in 1960 in Rome, immediately after the Olympics, Sir Ludwig watched as 300 athletes entered the Olympic Stadium. From this has sprung the Paralympic Games, second in size only to the Olympics.

Instead of resting on his laurels, Sir Ludwig realized his work was just beginning. As president of the International Sports Organization for the Disabled (ISOD), founder of the British Sports Association for the Disabled, and world-renowned expert in his professional field, he worked tirelessly to improve the day-to-day lives of those with disabilities. Sir Ludwig Guttmann passed away in 1980, having seen the influence of his games touch thousands of people worldwide. His vision continues to inspire all those who strive for his dream: the full integration of those with disabilities into mainstream society.

For a more complete history of wheelchair basketball read the magnificent book written by Horst Strohkendl ( former German National women's coach) "The 50th Anniversary of Wheelchair Basketball" ISBN 3-89325-441-2


IMSOP becomes ISCoS!

At the Annual General Meeting in Nottwil, Switzerland, September 2001, it was agreed that we would change the name of our Society. The majority agreed on the name:

International Spinal Cord Society

The History of ISCoS

The Spinal Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital was founded in February 1944 by Dr Ludwig Guttmann (later Sir Ludwig Guttmann). It was a Ministry of Pensions Hospital for the treatment of injured servicemen and ex-servicemen. In 1952 it became the National Spinal Injuries Centre, part of the British National Health Service.

In 1948 the National Stoke Mandeville Games were started and in 1952 the International Stoke Mandeville Games were founded. In 1955 the doctors from various countries who accompanied their teams to these Games, started to meet informally to discuss their clinical work and research. As these meetings became larger and more formal, the International Medical Society of Paraplegia was founded in 1961 with Sir Ludwig Guttmann as the President.

In the early years, the Annual Scientific Meetings were held at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, except in Olympic years when they were held in association with the Paralympics. The Annual Scientific Meetings are now held in many different countries and in addition there are Regional Meetings supported by the
Society, throughout the world.  


Prof. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, CBE, FRS  

Founder and First President

Prof. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, CBE, FRS

Subsequent Presidents

Dr Herb Talbot USA 1970 - 73
Dr Albert Tricot Belgium 1973 - 77
Prof. Volkmar Paeslack Germany 1977 - 80
Sir George Bedbrook Australia 1980 - 84
Prof. Alain Rossier Switzerland 1984 - 88
Dr Ed Carter USA 1988 - 92
Dr Paul Dollfus France 1992 - 96
Dr Hans Frankel UK 1996 - 00
Prof. Takaaki Ikata Japan 2000 - 04
Prof. W Donovan USA 2004 -


The Objectives of ISCoS

International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS) shall:

  1. Serve as an international impartial, non-political and non-profit making association whose purpose is to study all problems relating to traumatic and non-traumatic lesions of the spinal cord. This includes causes, prevention, basic and clinical research, medical and surgical management, clinical practice, education, rehabilitation and social reintegration. This society will function in close collaboration with other national and international bodies, thereby encouraging the most efficient use of available resources.
  2. Provide a scientific exchange among its members and others by collecting and disseminating information through publications, correspondence, exhibits, regional and international seminars, symposia, conferences and otherwise
  3. Advise, encourage, promote and when requested, assist in efforts to co-ordinate or guide research, development and evaluation activities related to spinal cord lesions throughout the world.
  4. Advise, encourage, guide and support the efforts of those responsible for the care of patients involved and when requested, correlate these activities throughout the world.
  5. Advise, encourage, guide and support the efforts of those responsible for the education and training of medical professionals and professionals allied to medicine and when requested, correlate these activities throughout the world.

The International Spinal Cord Society shall work in collaboration with national and international bodies, thereby encouraging the most efficient use of available resources worldwide.



ISCoS as an NGO

The Society has been recognised as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)and by the European Commission in the framework of the Helio II Programme.

The Swiss Interdevelopment Fund of ISCoS
Thanks to the generosity of the Swiss Paraplegic Foundation, a "Swiss Interdevelopment Fund" was established to provide limited financial help to doctors in the developing countries to:

  • become Full Members of the Society
  • receive the monthly journal SPINAL CORD
  • develop specialised SCI medical services
  • attend the Annual Scientific Meeting of ISCoS and submit papers for presentation at these meetings
  • undertake research work in a subject related to SCI
  • receive scholarships
  • submit papers for publication in SPINAL CORD

Further information is available from the Honorary Secretary.

PARADOC - the documentation Centre on Spinal Cord Lesions

Paradoc is the name given to the ongoing project of a specific database created by the joint initiatives of ISCoS, its Education Committee, and the Swiss Paraplegics Foundation (SPF). It is based in the library of the Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil, Switzerland.
The aim of Paradoc is to collect publications and references concerning education and training on the subject of spinal cord lesions. Thus we want to:

  • promote the exchange of information on an international basis, especially towards developing countries.
  • encorage translations of teaching/training media into national or regional languages at low cost.
  • collect and safeguard historical publications on spinal cord lesions (books, articles, etc).

ParaDoc is destined to patients and their families as well as doctors, allied professionals, hospitals, rehabilitation centres and community based libraries. To make it a useful education reference tool we need your ideas and support. We are grateful for any kind of literature that can be referred to us.