Physical education, originally called physical culture, began as hygiene and physiology instruction taught by the college’s resident physician. A gymnasium was established in the Main Building. Plans and funding for a new gymnasium were crushed in 1900 after a typhoid fever epidemic. A mandatory walking period and intramural athletics continued for many years without formal curriculum. The outdoor facilities for sports were confined to four tennis courts and a small athletic field. With the development of the student Athletic Association in 1900, sports gained a large presence on the campus and a quarter of the student body was participating in the organization within two years. The fairly new sport, basketball, was soon the game of choice, followed closely by tennis. In 1907, a new gymnasium was established in South Spencer Dormitory and a professional director was also chosen.
The name physical training replaced physical culture and the term physical education was officially adopted in 1917. Hygiene and personal health were at the focus of the physical education program. For incoming students, a postural examination had long been required. This test was joined in 1907 by other physical education requirements: a mandatory course focused on calisthenics and gymnastics; an all-black uniform of long-sleeved blouse, tie, long bloomers, and stockings.
The 1920 arrival of Mary Channing Coleman marked a shift in the program’s direction. The year after her arrival, in 1921, Coleman was named head of the new Department of Physical Education. By the time of her death in 1947, Coleman had molded the physical education department into a leading training program of female physical education teachers. Flourishing under the prosperity of the 1920s, the physical education program expanded into new facilities. The old Spencer gym was replaced in 1922 by a fifty by ninety foot outdoor gymnasium. Three years later, in 1925, the Rosenthal Gymnasium was constructed with a basketball court and swimming pool.
Following the sudden death of Coleman in 1947, Ethel L. Martus succeeded her as the new director and continued the legacy of Coleman. By 1940, twenty-nine activity courses were offered. The program advanced beyond just training future teachers; as graduates pursued careers in dance, recreation, and corrective work, the curriculum adapted to meet new needs. Eventually, in the 1940s, the first graduate work in physical education was offered in dance. The program expanded its graduate offerings in the 1950s; the 1949 MFA degree in dance was followed by the 1951 master of education in PE and 1959 master of science. In 1966, a doctor of education in physical education was officially established. These new graduate degrees enhanced the image of the physical education program. The 1952 opening of a second gymnasium, named for Mary Channing Coleman, provided the facilities for advanced physical education courses.
In 1963, the Department of Physical Education merged with the Department of Health to form the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. Intramural and intercollegiate athletics, financed by student fees, served as non-academic divisions. This multi-division department gained school status in 1971, with the establishment of the School of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (HPERD). Martus was named dean of the new school.
While a physical education major was still offered in the school, physical education was not recognized as a distinct department but as a concentration within HPERD. A school reorganization in 1985 resulted in the re-establishment of the Department of Physical Education. In 1989, the name of the department was changed to the Department of Exercise and Sport Science.
- Mary Channing Coleman (1921-1947)
- Ethel Lawther Martus (1947-1971)
- Shirl J. Hoffman (1985-1989, continuing as head of the new Department of Exercise and Sports Science)