Physical education was unheard of until the arrival of Francis Wayland as president in 1827. Wayland, who was given to exercise as an aid to mental agility, installed a German “Turnplatz” on the campus in the spring of 1827 and regular exercises began in the summer term under George F. Haskins. Members of the faculty were encouraged to partake of the gymnastic program, and did so at first, but they soon found ways to avoid the exercises, which came to an end with the cold weather even before the 1827-28 annual catalogue was printed with its announcement, “A very complete Gymnasium, with every variety of apparatus for exercise, has lately been erected on the College grounds,” the last mention of the Gymnasium. Some students patronized a local gymnasium. George A. Allen 1852 noted in his diary in 1850 that he had paid for a month’s use of a downtown gymnasium and had received a key.
In 1869 an arrangement was made with Messrs. West and Hunt for the use of their gymnasium by the students on a voluntary basis, half the expense being borne by the college and half by the students. One hundred students availed themselves of this opportunity for gymnastic exercise, paying their share of the six dollars per student for the period from March 1 to July 1. The next year a similar arrangement was made from November 15 to April 15 at a cost of $7.50 per student. In 1884, arrangements were made for the students, who were dissatisfied with the limited accommodations which the Y.M.C.A. had afforded them, to use Smith’s Gymnasium in Butler Exchange for five dollars a year. The offer was limited to 75 students, who could visit the gymnasium only between the hours of 8 and 10 P.M. In 1890, while awaiting the completion of the new gymnasium, students were able to make use of the Sanitary Gymnasium downtown on Aborn Street for five dollars a year. After Lyman Gymnasium opened in 1891, gymnasium work became required of all students four hours a week beginning in the second term of 1891-92. An important feature of the program was class drill, which advanced from Indian clubs for freshmen, to dumb-bells for sophomores, to single-sticks for juniors, to foils for seniors. The requirement was suspended during the third term, when the weather permitted outdoor sports, which were considered more desirable. All students in the entering class were given physical examinations including measurements and strength tests; their measurements were plotted on an anthropometric table compiled from the measurements of 2,300 students, and each student received a data card “showing how weak places may be strengthened and giving advice as to bathing and care of the body.” On March 3, 1898 an exhibition of the system of training was performed in Infantry Hall by six hundred students and attended by an equal number of spectators, “many of whom were educators from abroad.” The physical education requirement was changed in 1897 to three hours per week, and in 1905 was limited to freshmen and sophomores only. In 1913, in the wake of the Titanic disaster, a rule was passed requiring all students to be able to swim a distance of 150 feet before receiving their diplomas, and subsequently one period of swimming instruction was substituted for a period of gymnastic drill. Physical education was required for freshmen only in 1924, was reduced to two hours in 1947, and finally became voluntary in 1970.
Physical education for women was nonexistent when the Women’s College began, but not for long. Mabel Potter 1897, as a freshman accosted President Andrews after chapel and requested gymnastics for the women. At the time Andrews recommended walking for exercise, but by 1894 arrangements had been made for the use of a downtown gymnasium by the students. In 1897 the alumnae subscribed funds to purchase physical apparatus for the women and a Department of Physical Culture was established with Mabel Potter as instructor of physiology, hygiene, and sanitary science. The classes in physical culture, which employed the Swedish system with the addition of club swinging, were a requirement for freshmen and sophomores and an elective for the upper classes. The women carried the apparatus from their dressing rooms in the basement of Pembroke Hall back and forth to the top floor (which also served as the chapel), being ever careful not to loiter on the stairs in their attire as the janitor was “not a married man.” Miss Potter reported a marked improvement in the condition of the students as evidenced by measurements taken in November 1897 and again in April 1898. Miss Potter was instructor in physical culture until 1901. Janet Auty was instructor from 1901 to 1904, followed by Jessie Adams from 1906, who resigned in December 1906 because of ill health, and was replaced by Helen Wilbur Paine, who taught until 1912. Dr. Jeannie Oliver Arnold was physician at the Women’s College from 1902 to 1912 and lectured to the students on care of the body, rest and exercise, food, and clothing. M. Elizabeth Bates was instructor in hygiene and physical education from 1913 to 1919, and was followed by Nellie E. Bussell from 1919 to 1922. Marjorie Brown was in charge from 1922 until 1926, when she left to marry H. Stanton Smith ’21, and was succeeded by Frances Dennett, who remained until 1930. In 1924 the department began to use its “schematograph” to produce posture drawings of freshman and sophomores, a practice which went on for many years. A four-year physical education requirement for women students was put effect in 1925. Miss Brown’s report that year noted the interschool activities of the varsity basketball, fistball, tennis, and bowling teams, the interclass baseball tournament, and the demonstration of the pyramid class. There was a “scout course” affiliated with the Girl Scouts, and an elective course in interpretative and clog dancing. In 1935 the Physical Education Department purchased equipment for badminton, croquet, deck tennis, and horseshoes.
In 1927 the women’s Physical Education Department acquired the use of a house at Glen Rock near Kingston, which belonged to Mrs. George Hayward and was available for the use of women students on weekends. The department formed an Outing Club and in 1934 had a cabin on the shore of Sand Dam reservoir in Chepachet.
Frances Dennett Tiedemann was director of physical education in 1926 until 1930, when Bessie Rudd arrived to preside over women’s athletics and physical education until 1961. Under her supervision the structure of the course work was changed from classes which covered a multitude of sports to separate courses in each sport, from which the student, after completing the required freshman course in fundamentals of posture and body mechanics (known as “Freshman Fundies"), took a semester of a team sports, two of individual sports, and the swimming test, which was a requirement for graduation. Intramural competition had two divisions, which were class competition and interdorm competition. Class team competition counted as a physical education class, as did club practice. The club members were those students with advanced skills, who were chosen for potential intercollegiate competition, should the opportunity arise. Each fall staff members from Pembroke, Jackson, Radcliffe, and Wheaton would meet to plan a schedule for archery, badminton, basketball, bowling, and field hockey. When the physical education requirement was dropped, the club teams suffered for several years, but various physical education staff members, often coaching two sports per season, kept the “club” spirit alive until the 1972 Olympics and Title IX sparked a revived interest in both voluntary physical education classes and intercollegiate competition. At this time there was also a change in hiring philosophy from having physical education instructors who could coach to full time coaches who could teach physical education classes. Later there were part time coaches and some full time coaches who had a secondary responsibility.
Fred E. Parker was the first director of men’s physical education from 1893 to 1903. Frederick Marvel followed from 1903 to 1938. Leslie Swain, who had been associate professor of physical training since 1920, stayed on until 1945. Physical education and intramurals were directed from 1946 to 1953 by Westcott E. S. Moulton, and after 1953 by John M. Heffernan. In 1971, upon the merger of Brown and Pembroke, the physical education programs of the two colleges were consolidated under Arlene Gorton ’52, who had succeeded Miss Rudd, as director, and the requirements were removed. Physical education did not disappear, and in time it became more popular, as faculty, staff, and students enrolled in voluntary classes in conditioning and individual sports.