Luther Halsey Gulick: recreation, physical education and the YMCA

The picture of Luther Halsey Gulick is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. According to the library, there are no known restrictions on the use of these photos - Wikipedia Commons. Luther Halsey Gulick physical education and the YMCA. Luther Halsey Gulick (1865-1918) was an expert and prolific writer on physical education, folk dance education and recreation. In this article Thomas Winter examines his contribution and his work with the YMCA, Campfire Girls and other organizations.

Contents: biography · key ideas · contributions to education · conclusion · bibliography · how to cite this article

Luther Halsey Gulick was born on December 4, 1865 at Honolulu, Hawaii as the fifth of seven children of Congregationalist missionaries, Luther Halsey Gulick and Louisa Lewis Gulick. They had been sent out by the American Board of Commissioners Foreign Missions, young Luther spend the first fifteen years of his life abroad on Hawaii, in Spain, Italy, and Japan. Upon return to the United States in 1880, he enrolled in the preparatory department of Oberlin College until 1882. From 1882 to 1883, Luther Gulick was enrolled in Hanover High School in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 1884, he returned to Oberlin, where he studied physical education with Delphine Hanna. However, plagued throughout his life with heart problems and chronic headaches, Gulick had to leave Oberlin due to illness in 1885. He resumed his education the same year, however, when he joined the Sargent School of Physical Training, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The following year, Gulick became a student at the Medical College at the City University of New York where he was awarded the M.D, in 1889. He married Charlotte Emily Vetter on August 30, 1887. Together they had six children, Louise, Frances, Charlotte, Katharine, Luther, and John Halsey.

Throughout his life and career, Luther Halsey Gulick was greatly interested in physical education and hygiene. He also kept himself intensely busy. While pursuing his medical degree between 1886 and 1889, he began his career as the physical director of the Jackson, Michigan YMCA in 1886. In 1887, Gulick became head of the gymnasium department of the Young Men’s Christian Education’s Springfield Training School. In 1891, he assigned one of his students a set of rules to design a game around. The student was James Naismith. The game became known as basketball. He continued at Springfield until 1903.While serving as head of the gymnasium department at Springfield, he also served as international secretary for the physical training department of the YMCA. In addition, he was secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education from 1892 to 1893.

The busiest time of his life was the first decade of the twentieth century. From 1900 to 1903, Luther Gulick filled the post of principal of Pratt Institute High School. In 1903, Gulick became the first director of physical education in the public schools of New York City with a staff of 36 – the largest of any city in the United States. Gulick also chaired the Physical Training Lecture Committee of the St. Louis exposition in 1904; he initiated the Public School Physical Education Society in the same year at the St. Louis Exposition; and founded the more informal Academy of Physical Education in 1905 in New York. He was a member of the American Olympic Games Committee for the Athens games in 1906 and the London games in 1908. In 1907, Luther Gulick was a delegate to the Second International Congress on School Hygiene in London. He lectured on hygiene at New York University from 1906 to 1909, and served as consultant for the New York Hospital for Deformities and Joint Diseases in 1907.The same year, he became chairman of the Playground Extension Committee and of the “Backward Children Investigation” of the Russell Sage Foundation. In 1910, he was among the founders of the Boy Scouts of America.

Luther Gulick also was among the founders and first presidents of several associations dedicated to physical education, such as the American Physical Education Association (president, 1903-1906), the Public School Training Society (president, 1905-1908), he helped to organize American School Hygiene Association in 1907, and the Playground and Recreation Society of America (president, 1906-1908). A member of the organizing committee of the Boy Scouts of America, Gulick decided that such an organization should be available to girls as well and founded with his wife the Campfire Girls in 1911 with a desire to influence the changing currents in women’s life in the early twentieth century.

His publishing record is equally as impressive. He edited the Gulick Hygiene Series of books related to subjects he was interested in; edited Physical Education, 1891-1896, Association Outlook, 1897-1900; and the American Physical Education Review, 1901-1903. He wrote Physical Measurements and How They Are Used (1889); Physical Education by Muscular Exercise (1904); The Efficient Life (1907); Mind and Work (1908); The Healthful Art of Dancing (1910); Playground book; The Dynamics of Manhood (1918); and Medical Inspection of Schools (1907), written with Leonard Ayres.

In 1913, Luther Gulick left his post as director of physical education in New York City’s Public Schools to become director of the Department of Child Hygiene of the Russell Sage Foundation. Failing health forced him to resign from that post in 1913. In 1918, Gulick answered a call from the YMCA to serve as chairman of its International Committee on Physical Recreation of the War Work Council. In that role, Gulick traveled to France, where he conducted a survey among the among the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force. The survey aimed at determining the moral and physical well being and sex hygiene of the servicemen. Gulick died at age 53 on August 13, 1918 in South Casco, Maine, at his camp at lake Sebago.

Key ideas

According to John Gustav-Wrathall,

Gulick appeared to embrace many contradictions. On the one hand, he occasionally seemed obsessed with rules and self-control; on the other, he frequently showed evidence of favoring spontaneity over order, principles over rules, and experimentation over legalism. At times he seemed to favor sexual repression; at other times, he displayed rational moderation in the realm of human sexual behavior. He was an advocate of eugenics and a believer in social Darwinism who also upheld altruism, service, and self sacrifice as the highest form of religion (Gustav-Wrathall, 1998: 28-20).

Notwithstanding, several major ideas can be identified.

The foundation of his thought was the so-called ‘Recapitulation Theory’. According to Recapitulation Theory, each individual, just like each human race (and that included at the time what we now would refer to as ethnic groups), recapitulates human evolution. Child study experts, such as G. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University and founding father of psychology in the United States, for example argued that each boy had a “little Indian” stage in his development. That is, on the way towards maturity each individual relives past stages of evolution. It was central, then, to shape behavior towards civilized self-possession as each individual moves away from the more atavistic behavioral stages of human evolution. Luther Gulick believed that this could be achieved best through proper training and development of spirit, mind, and body and to overcome the mind-body dualism in social thought and to understand human beings as holistic entities instead. This brought Gulick to create a new symbol for the YMCA – a triangle, inscribed with the words ‘body,’ ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit,’ adopted as YMCA logo in 1895 at the YMCA Convention in Springfield, Massachusetts. Gulick, then, promoted what was known at the time as a “Muscular Christianity.”

At the time when social anthropology and social psychology slowly became established as recognized disciplines Luther Gulick believed and argued that the individual and its behavior are established through interpersonal relations and that values are collective phenomenon to a large extent. This was the foundation of his belief in the necessity of building team spirit and team work. This guided his ideas for games. When Gulick handed James Naismith a set of rules for him to design a game around it, this is what he had in mind: a game that could be played in doors, that is year round; a game that promoted the unity and development of body, mind, and spirit; and a game that played on the individuals social instincts and promoted team work.

Contributions to education

Luther Halsey Gulick made numerous contributions to education. When he and Robert J. Roberts launched the first course for gymnasium instructors at the YMCA College at Springfield, the association did not see physical training as the integral part of its program, and of an education of its members to be well-rounded men, but merely as a bait to draw young men to what the YMCA considered its main mission – religious work. Physical directors tended to be former athletes, pugilists, ex-soldiers, and former circus performers who mostly lacked a serious commitment to the Christian mission of the YMCA. Luther Gulick changed that by instituting a training program for physical directors, who would combine preparation in physical education with Christian commitment and the abilities of a good teacher. He contributed to a more rational approach to physical education and the professionalization of physical education instructors. Luther Halsey Gulick’s goals for physical education were wide-ranging. He aimed at bodily symmetry, muscular strength and control, endurance, agility, grace, courage, self-possession, and expression. Physical education, he believed, would make better men and fathers. To convince the YMCA as a whole of the value of such an approach took time, though. It was only a the 1889 International Convention of the YMCA in Philadelphia that the association made Gulick’s approach program. In addition to his contribution to physical education in the YMCA, Gulick also advocated boys work. He believed it would be more effective to approach boys at an impressionable age, rather than aim at young men who had already reached adulthood.

As director of physical education of the public schools of greater New York, Luther Halsey Gulick initiated several innovations. First, he created a Public School Athletic League for boys, funded not by the city but by the contributions of wealthy citizens. Second, in 1905, a number of prominent women approached Gulick to help form a Girls’ Branch. This Girls’ Branch instituted folk dancing for girls. Gulick himself hoped that such a program would instill the girls with an appreciation for different ethnic traditions (although the majority of the dances used were Swedish) and create a sense of a larger, common sense of an American identity. The book that resulted from this work, The Healthful Art of Dancing (1910) was used into the mid-30s as reference work by dance teachers. Gulick also was crucial in promoting urban playgrounds. In 1907, 90 cities had such facilities. Due to the effort of Luther Gulick and the Playground and Recreation Society, by 1910, 531 cities had such playgrounds.

Luther Gulick also devoted his attention to school hygiene and health. Together with Leonard Ayres, Gulick conducted the “Backward Children’s Investigation” for the Russell Sage Foundation. This investigation showed that signs of mental retardation were not a sign of physical defects but could be addressed by care and attention and that alleged defects can decrease with age. So-called “retardation” was recognized as a developmental and not a physical issue.. As a result of the investigation the New York Board of Education established a Department of Investigation that used Medical Inspection of Schools, the results of Gulick’s and Ayres’ study as manual. The findings of the Russell Sage Backward Children Investigation under the leadership of Luther Gulick and the auspices of the Russell Sage Foundation more and more cities began to create systems of medical inspection. Their number rose from 135 (1908) to over 700 (1912).


Throughout his life time, Luther Halsey Gulick made numerous contributions to physical education and recreation. It is difficult to trace Gulick’s influence on education in detail. He often changed his position; moved from one organization to another. Luther Gulick saw himself as a planner and initiator rather than an executor. Gulick’s role as innovator was less grounded in truly original thought but more in his ability to pick up new ideas and currents of thought and blend them together and to promote the results through a range of offices and institutions, many of which he founded himself. In that sense, he was more of a social engineer than a generator of new ideas. Moreover, more research on Luther Gulick is needed. However, despite his short life, Gulick remains significant to physical education. Beginning in 1923 and continuing to this day, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) annually awards the Luther Halsey Gulick Medal, as its highest honor to a distinguished leader in any one of the alliance’s fields of activity – a strong sign of Gulick’s widespread influence on a number of fields in physical education and recreation.

Further reading

Baker, William J. “Gulick, Luther Halsey,” American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), s.v. A short biographical synopsis of Gulick’s life.

Dorgan, Ethel Josephine. Luther Halsey Gulick, 1865-1918. Contributions to Education, No. 635 (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1934). Dorgan’s biography remains the only, monograph-length biography of Gulick and has an extensive bibliography of his writings.

“Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick,” The Playground 12 (October 1918): 251-255. A short assessment of Gulick’s life and influence after his death.

“Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick: A Symposium,” American Physical Education Review 23 (October 1918): 413-426. See above.

Gulick, Luther Halsey. The Efficient Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1907. Vi + 158 pp. In this book Gulick attempted to offer a guide how men could effectively deal with the predicaments and pressures of modern life. Along with Mind and Work and The Dynamics of Manhood his best work. Reprinted in 1909, 1911, 1913, 1918, and 1924, the book was translated into Danish in 1923.

Gulick, Luther Halsey. Mind and Work. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1908. Ix + 201 pp. In many ways, Mind and Work and the Efficient Life are one work in two volumes. Here, Gulick especially dealt with the relationship between men and their work.

Gulick, Luther Halsey, and Ayres, Leonard. Medical Inspection of Schools. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1908. X + 276 pp. Documehtation of Gulick’s and Ayres’ work with “Backwards Children Investigation” for the Russell Sage Foundation.

Gulick, Luther Halsey. The Healthful Art of Dancing. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1910. Xi + 244 pp. A collection of letters, photos, and essays, documenting Gulick’s contributions to the Girls’ Branch of the New York Public School Athletic League.

Gulick, Luther Halsey. The Dynamic of Manhood. New York: Association Press, 1918. Vi + 158 pp. In some ways Gulick’s most interesting work. Here, he advises men to actively condition their emotions, by taking control of their sexual impulses, to generate the outward expression they wanted.

Gulick, Luther Halsey. Morals and Moral. New York: Association Press, 1919. Xi + 192 pp. Posthumous publication of letters, reports, and essays, documenting his observations in France with the American troops stationed there during World War I.

Gulick, Luther Halsey. A Philosophy of Play. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920. Xvi + 291 pp. Posthumous publication of Gulick’s work on play and playgrounds and their uses in education.

Gustav-Wrathall, John Donald. Take the Young Stranger by The Hand: Same-Sex Relations & The YMCA (Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1998). The book contains some useful information on Gulick and his thought.

Hopkins, C. Howard. History of the Y.M.C.A. in North America (New York: Association Press, 1951). Hopkins’ centennial history of the YMCA in North America contains an extensive section on Gulick’s life and contribution to the YMCA.

Knapp, Richard F., and Hartsoe, Charles E. Play for America: The National Recreation Association, 1906-1965 (Arlington, Va.: National Recreation and Park Association, 1979). This book contains some relevant information of Gulick’s role in the founding of the Playground Association, later renamed into National Recreation Association, and his influence.

“Luther Halsey Gulick, 1865-1918,” The Survey 40 (August 1918): 579-80. A short obituary of Gulick.

Putney, Clifford. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001). Contains useful information on Gulick’s influence on physical education and the notion of a “Muscular Christianity.”

Rader, Benjamin G., “The Recapitulation Theory of Play: Motor Behaviour, Moral Reflexes, and Manly Attitudes in Urban America, 1880-1920,” in: J. A. Mangan and James Walvin, eds., Manliness and Morality: Middle Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1880-1940 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 123-34. This article particularly focuses on Gulick’s thinking about and application of the so-called recapitulation theory.

Tomko, Linda F. “Fete Accompli: Gender, ‘Folk Dance,’ and Progressive Era Political Ideals in New York City,” in: Susan Leigh Foster, ed., Corporealities: Dancing, Knowledge, Culture and Power (New York: Routledge, 1996), 156-76.

Tomko, Linda F. Dancing Class: Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Divides in American Dance, 1890-1920 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1999). Tomko’s works contain discussions of Gulick’s contribution to folk dance education in New York City.

Wallach, Stephanie. “Luther Halsey Gulick and the Salvation of the American Adolescent.” Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, New York, 1989. Wallach’s dissertation is an exploration of Gulick’s work with the Russell Sage Foundation.

Winter, Thomas. “‘The Healthful Art of Dancing’: Luther Halsey Gulick, Gender, the Body, and the Performativity of National Identity,” Journal of American Culture 22 (Summer 1999): 33-38. This essay explores Gulick’s contribution to and social thought about folk dancing.

Related web pages

Acknowledgement: The picture of Luther Halsey Gulick is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. According to the library, there are no known restrictions on the use of these photos – Wikipedia Commons.

How to cite this article: Winter, T. (2004) ‘Luther Halsey Gulick’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

The writer: Thomas Winter is an assistant professor in American culture and literature at Bilkent University, Anakara, Turkey. His first book, titled Making Men, Making Class: The YMCA and Workingmen, 1877-1920 was published by The University of Chicago Press in 2002.

© Thomas Winter 2004