Ethel Martus Lawther was hired by Mary Channing Coleman as a professor within the Department of Physical Education in 1931. Upon Coleman’s death in 1947, Martus became only the second head of the school’s Department of Physical Education. She was an early proponent of the importance of physical activity for girls and women and stressed the value of a strong scientific background for physical education majors, a policy later emulated in departments across the country.
Under Lawther’s leadership, the graduate offerings grew in the department. An MFA in dance was offered in 1949, a master of education in PE in 1951, and a master of science in 1959. By 1966, they were offering a doctor of education in physical education.
In addition to promoting advanced coursework, Lawther was a strong proponent of professional service and she encouraged the faculty members in her department to be very active in national professional organizations. The department was seen as one of the nation’s best training grounds of female physical educators.
In 1971, the department gained school status with the creation of the School of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. Lawther was named the first dean of the newly created school.
Lawther retired in 1974. The Ethel Martus Lawther Lecture series was initiated in 1975, to honor Dean Lawther’s retirement. In 1989, she was presented with the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from UNCG. She passed away in 1990.