Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Thomas K. Cureton, Jr.: Pioneer Researcher, Proselytizer, and Proponent for Physical Fitness

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Thomas K. Cureton, Jr.: Pioneer Researcher, Proselytizer, and Proponent for Physical Fitness

Article excerpt

Introduction

Thomas K. Cureton, Jr. (1901-1992), was 91 when he died in Urbana, Illinois. He was recruited to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign by Dean Seward C. Staley in 1941 after teaching at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts since 1929. Cureton established the Physical Fitness Research Laboratory in the Department of Physical Education for Men in 1944. Actively engaged in teaching, research, publishing, clinics, traveling, mentoring graduate students, exercising, and providing service to a variety of professional associations, most notably the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPER), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), until his retirement in 1969 and thereafter as professor emeritus through the 1980s, T. K. Cureton, Jr., was the recognized leader and steward of America's fitness movement for a half century.(1)

America had other health promoters who preached the gospel of exercise and health during the twentieth century like Bernaar Macfadden, Paul Bragg, Charles Atlas, and Jack LaLanne, but none of these highly popular promoters of physical culture possessed the academic credentials to positively impact the scientific community the way Cureton did. Although Cureton and these other health reformers had much in common - all were weak and sickly in their youth; they turned to exercise and good nutrition to improve their lives; all used themselves as living examples of the healthy lifestyle they were espousing; they took pride in outperforming men forty years younger; they were prodigious and inspirational writers, publishers, and speakers; all were physically active long after retirement age; and their exceptionally long life spans were testimonies to the "laws of health" which they taught and obeyed - Cureton emerged as the only fitness enthusiast who produced the research to substantiate his beliefs regarding the positive influence of physical activity on health.(2)

Like the other physical culturists of the first half of the twentieth century, Cureton was called a "quack" and a "charlatan" by some physiologists and physicians who did not agree with his early findings, especially those relating to exercise and the heart. As Cureton remembered, the typical attitude of skeptical physicians was, "That wild man will kill a few middle-aged people and then he won't be around to do it again."(3) But, in Cureton's relentless bulldog style, he produced study after study demonstrating that his statements were indeed correct. By 1954, when Cureton was featured in the CBS television program, "The Search for Health and Fitness," and certainly by 1966 when he was directly involved in the publication of a special report published by Time-Life Books on The Healthy Life: How Diet and Exercise Affect Your Heart and Vigor, he had silenced most of his critics. In fact, in the latter publication, which was made available to millions of Americans through book clubs and mass marketing, Cureton was pictured during his daily run through a cemetery near the University of Illinois campus. The caption for the photograph read: "As part of his own fitness program, Dr. Thomas K. Cureton, Jr., jogs near the University of Illinois. His workout takes him through a cemetery where some of his colleagues who once called him a 'health nut' now rest."(4)

Cureton was deeply committed to physical education and made innumerable contributions to that profession. Influenced early by William G. Anderson and Robert J. H. Kiphuth at Yale and James H. McCurdy, George B. Affleck, Leonard A. Larson, and Peter V. Karpovich at Springfield College, Cureton was a doctoral student of Jesse Feiring Williams at Columbia University.(5) In the tradition of Charles H. McCloy at the University of Iowa, Cureton argued for more emphasis on the "physical" in physical education. And, even though he organized and directed the most notable exercise physiology research laboratory in physical education after the demise of the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory (1927-1947), Cureton still believed "the true laboratories in physical education are the pools, playfields, gymnasiums, and camps. …

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