Monday, April 1, 2013

Physical Culture at State Normal

Dr. Miriam Bitting
A founding department at the State Normal and Industrial School (now UNCG) was the Department of Physiology and Health (also known as Physical Culture). This unit had two objectives: instruction in hygiene and creation an individualized program of exercise for students. Work in the department included gymnastics, calisthenics, and exercises that were to promote the individual’s health and strength. The purpose of the department, according to the campus catalog, was “not only to provide systematic, graded, healthful exercise for the class, but also to give each student such exercises as her peculiar case demands, to strengthen crooked shoulders, to strengthen weak lungs, to develop chest and arms, and to improve her general bearing.” This focus on “Physical Culture” would “give students such knowledge as will make them reverent and care for their bodies and such training as will give them strength and conduce to their happiness.”

Maude Broadaway
As the campus’s resident physician, Dr. Miriam Bitting not only taught physiology in the classrooms, but on her morning and evening rounds, she made suggestions about ventilation, clothing, bathing, dressing, and other points of personal hygiene. During this time period, it was rare for a full-time physician to be on staff at a college, and a female physician was exceptionally rare. But, President Charles Duncan McIver’s wife (Lula Martin McIver) actually insisted that there be one on campus. Dr. Bitting had previously received her medical degree from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, where she also practiced prior to arriving at State Normal. In 1893, however, Dr. Bitting left campus after getting married and Dr. Anna Gove took over as the campus physician and head of the Physical Culture Department.

Dr. Bitting and Gove were assisted in their work by Maude Broadaway, a student, who acted as director of the gymnasium. A small room in the northeast section of the Main Building (now Foust) was equipped with eleven bars, chest weights, Indian clubs, and a weighing machine. Although the gym was in use only for 4 ½ months during the first year, “many chests increased in girth, shoulders straightened, arms became stronger, and the general bearing much improved.”

Main Building (now Foust) Gymnasium
A designated Walking Period also ensured that students got some exercise each day. All students were required to leave the dorms and engage in some type of physical activity. Some students loved it; others didn’t. In 1914, an article appeared in the Carolinian student newspaper describing the Walking Period: “Walking period bell rings at 4:30, you open your windows and doors, and set out resolutely to tramp the slowly drying walk for a perfectly good hour you might have spent making fudge or doing embroidery.” Someone checked in the dorms to make sure that all students had gone on their walk. Students were required to walk only on campus, and most chose to walk through Peabody Park, about one mile each day.

Walking Period in Peabody Park
Dr. T.H. Pritchard, former president of Wake Forest, who delivered the first commencement address at the Normal, took note of the institution’s focus on women’s health in observing that there were three ways to recognize a State Normal student: “she doesn’t flirt with the boys, she walks erect and throws her shoulders back well, and she has a large waist” (Drs. Bitting and Gove had taught the women that lacing was not conducive to health, and two-thirds of them had been persuaded to discard their corsets). By tossing aside Victorian-era taboos about women’s health and fitness capabilities, State Normal became an early leader in physical education for women as well as in the training of female physical education instructors.

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