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Published: June 28, 2011

Luther Gulick (1865–1918)

Physician, educator and “father” of physical education as a standard element of the public elementary and secondary school curriculum in the United States. Born in Honolulu to a family of Congregationalist missionaries, the deeply religious Gulick was plagued by a lifelong series of illnesses from which physical exercise, learned in 1885 at the Sargent School of Physical Training (now Sargent College of Boston University), provided the only respite. Imbued with the missionary spirit inherited from his family, he joined the YOUNG MEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION in 1886 to teach physical education and train gymnasium instructors at the Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts (now Springfield College). He remained there for the next 17 years, developing a philosophy of education that placed physical training at the heart of the YMCA’s expanding educational program. He designed the association’s triangular emblem, representing the three elements of the whole man: physical, spiritual and social.
Little by little Gulick developed what would later become the modern physical education curriculum of American public schools. With Robert J. Roberts, YMCA worker who invented the ordered series of exercises he called “body building,” Gulick put together a program of “safe, easy, short, beneficial and pleasant” exercises and games that he introduced at the Training School in Springfield and then at YMCA branches across the nation. Among the games that Gulick developed was one that his Canadian-born student James Naismith invented—basketball. Like other elements of the program, it was designed as a physical education activity that was easy to learn for all age groups, playable indoors and out, free of violence and conducive to allaround development. By the time Gulick retired from YMCA work in 1903, he had inspired the construction of gymnasiums, swimming pools, physical education programs and athletic leagues in YMCAs across the United States.
Luther Gulick (1865–1918)

Luther Gulick (Library of Congress)

In 1903, Gulick became director of physical education of the New York City public schools for three years, during which time he introduced and integrated physical education and hygiene instruction into the curriculum and organized the Public School Athletic League. In 1906, he helped found the Playground Association of America, which made public playgrounds a nationwide objective and, eventually, a ubiquitous element of every public park in the United States. In 1910, he helped found the BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA, and two years later, he and his wife founded the CAMP FIRE GIRLS, a recreational, educational and service organization for young girls. A graduate of New York University Medical School (1889), he was a member of the American Medical Association and other medical societies, and he was a member of Olympic Games committees in 1906 and 1908.