An Ailment Not to Be Treated
In June 1944, Reg Townsend was digging a trench in the north of France when he heard an explosion. He shouted to his fellow soldiers to take cover in the six-foot-deep hole. But it was too late. Shrapnel rained from a second round of German mortar bombs. A nearby soldier was struck in the head. Reg was hit elsewhere: “I had the immediate sensation of floating in the air—most peculiar—but when I tried to move and found that I couldn’t, I knew that I caught it in the spine.”
Reg Townsend was rushed from the battlefield to the base hospital. Within days, he was flown back to his home country of England, where doctors informed him that he had paraplegia and would never walk again.
The oldest known description of paraplegia was found on an Egyptian scroll dating back to the time of the Pyramids, around 2700 BCE. The scroll contained detailed medical instructions for treating forty-eight illnesses. But spinal injury was classified as simply “an ailment not to be treated.”
Many years later, around 200 CE, a Greek surgeon named Galen studied the injuries of gladiators who had fallen from their chariots, possibly the earliest type of vehicle accident.
He learned that injuries near the top of the spine were the most serious and often led to death. Damage lower down the spine affected breathing, movement of the arms and legs, and control of the bladder and bowel. Damage to the lowest section of the spine might affect only the legs and bladder.
Over time, doctors and scientists learned more about the functions of the spine. Yet little was being done to help patients with spinal cord damage. Most died soon after their injury. In the 1940s, paraplegia was still considered by most “an ailment not to be treated.”
Reg Townsend was cast in white plaster from neck to ankles. He spent his days flat on his back in a hospital bed, hidden away from other patients, cut off from the world. Doctors had no hope for his recovery. They gave Reg, and others like him, an unfortunate nickname: “incurables.”
Could any doctor make a difference to these patients?
As a young boy, Ludwig Guttmann lived in a German mining town called Königshütte, near the border of what is now Poland. His father, Bernhard, ran a distillery business, while his mother, Dorothea, stayed busy raising Ludwig and his three younger sisters. Both of Ludwig’s grandfathers owned farms. During the summers, Ludwig spent long days in the fields helping with the corn harvest.
When it came to school, Ludwig was less interested in hard work. He liked to do things his own way. So he put off homework and projects until the end of each semester and then hurried to catch up and complete his assignments. He did not want to fail and repeat the dull classes! There were a few exceptions. Ludwig enjoyed learning about history. He liked singing with the school choir. Most of all, Ludwig was interested in sports. Running and soccer were his favorites. He was one of the shortest in his class, but he was fast. He outraced opponents. He flew across finish lines. Ludwig loved to win and made many friends among his teammates.
As a young Jewish boy, Ludwig faced other types of rivalries at school. One day at recess, a classmate of Ludwig’s insulted another boy, calling him “a damned Jew.” Ludwig stood up for his friend. He confronted the bully. When Ludwig demanded an explanation for the name calling, the boy only yanked on Ludwig’s tie, a special gift from his mother. A fistfight broke out. Before a teacher could stop the scuffle, the bell rang and the boys trudged back to class. Ludwig was let off with a warning. But the other boy received detention for the name calling. He had to apologize to both Ludwig and his Jewish classmate.
Little did Ludwig know, this type of anti-Semitic behavior—prejudice or aggression toward Jewish people—would become more frequent in Germany, and more dangerous, in the coming years.