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Athletic Sports (extract)

D. A. Sargent et al. "Athletic Sports", 1897

The Physical Properties of the Typical Man (pp. 3-47).
Physical Characteristics of the Athlete (pp. 51-104).


Dudley Sargent (1849-1824) was one of the most important and influential of all physical educators.  R Tait McKenzie called him “a pioneer, a thinker and a scientist”.  In his youth Sargent spent three years using his gymnastic skills as a circus performer.  He earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from Yale Medical School in 1878, and in 1879 was appointed Director of the Hemenway Gymnasium, a post he held until 1919. 


The importance of Sargent’s chapters – “The Physical Proportions of the Typical Man” and “Physical Characteristics of the Athlete” in the history of Athletics literature.

Although Sargent’s primary interest was the development of all-round strength and fitness for everyone, he brought new techniques, equipment, scientific rigour, data collection and analysis to strength and fitness training, which proved to be extremely popular with athletes.  For the first time we get detailed physical and anthropometric data on some of the leading athletes of the day. This paper was the direct response to an initiative by the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education to appoint a Vital Statistics Committee and to encourage the collection of anthropometric data, looking for “ideal types”.  What it revealed, was that different body shapes and sizes were associated with success in different athletic disciplines.

The text:

“The Physical Proportions of the Typical Man” first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, June, in 1887, and “Physical Characteristics of the Athlete”, in Scribner’s Magazine, in November 1887.  Both were modified slightly for publication in Athletic Sports.  For our purposes, the first chapter is of interest because it describes his equipment and the methodology of his analysis that he applies to athletes in the second paper.  It also provides the base-line data, collected from one thousand student subjects collected over a 17-year period, against which the athletes’ data are compared.  Sargent analyses in detail the body dimensions, strength and fitness of some of the best athletes at Harvard and Yale Universities, and although he only identifies them by one of their initials, they can be identified by the details that are given of their performances.  Some are also among the best track and field athletes in the USA, and in one case, Wendell Baker, the world.  So, we have data on the strength, fitness, and body size and shape of -

  • Figure 1.  “B”.  Wendell Baker (Harvard: the fastest man in the world for 220yds and 440yds.  100yds - 10 s; 220yds - 22.0s; 440yds - 47¾s.) 

  • Figure 2.  “W”.  Evert J Wendell (Harvard: seven times winner of American Collegiate Championship distances – 100yds to 440yds – 1779-1781.  100yds – 10s). 

  • Figure 3.  “B”.  HH Bemis (Harvard: holder of Harvard’s one, two, three and seven-mile walk records.  1mile - 6m 59½s; 2-miles – 15m 10½s; 3miles - 24m 14 2/5s; 7miles - 58m 52s).

  • Figure 4.  “W”.  SG Wells (Harvard: winner of Intercollegiate 440yards, 1886, 1887 and 1888).

  • Figure 5a,5b.  “D”.  Charles Albert Davenport (Harvard: holder of Intercollegiate 3mile record.  3miles – 16m 5 2/5s at Holmes Field 25 June 1887).

  • Figures 6a, 6b.  “H”.  W Harmar (Yale: winner of Intercollegiate Championships – one mile.  1mile - 4m 36 4/5s; 2miles - 10m 7s).

  • Figures 8a, 8b.  “S”.  TG Shearman (Yale: Long Jump and pole Vault.  LJ - 21ft 7½ ins; Running HJ - 5ft 6¾ins; PV – 10ft 3½ins). 

 There is also at least one, and sometimes there are two, good-quality line engravings of each athlete. 

Suggested further reading:

Dudley A Sargent, Dudley Allen Sargent, An Autobiography, (LW Sargent, Ed.), (Philadelphia, Lea & Febiger, 1927).


Peter Radford

Bibliographic details:

Title: Athletic Sports
Extract Details:

The Physical Properties of the Typical Man (pp. 3-47).
Physical Characteristics of the Athlete (pp. 51-104).

Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons. The Out of Door Library
Place of Publication: USA
Date of Publication: 1897
Date(s) of Re-Publication: 1898 by Kegan Paul, London
BL Catalogue: Document Supply W30/2309
"An Athletics Compendium" Reference: E37, p.98