Dr. Josephine Langworthy Rathbone: A Role Model for Contemporary Women in Sports Medicine
Many ACSM members have heard the name, Josephine Langworthy Rathbone, Ph.D., but do not know who she was. Dr. Rathbone was a founder of ACSM, the only woman among the group of 11. Some have suggested she was present because she was married to another founder, Dr. Peter Karpovich, whom she married in 1945 at the age of 46. Dr. Rathbone was a recognized scholar and teacher in her own right, and it is disingenuous to think that she did not “deserve” to be part of this stellar group.
Dr. Rathbone was a leader in the inception of the fields of corrective physical education, physical therapy and rehabilitation, the application of recreation to rehabilitation, health education and relaxation. Indeed, she considered herself to be both a physical therapist and physical educator. She was influential professionally and was leader in organizations besides ACSM, including the American Physiotherapy Association (now the American Physical Therapy Association) and the American Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (now called Shape America). Her scholarship in the field was impactful, changing the way that disabling conditions were viewed. She wrote four widely distributed academic books that went through many editions and printings. Her work on relaxation was frequently featured in the media, and she wrote a lay book that many of us can use today, “Teach Yourself How to Relax.” In her formative work in rehabilitation, she asserted that the goal of rehabilitation was to help an individual with a disabling condition to “reach his maximal degree of physical, mental, social, vocational and economic recovery,” and she advocated for an interdisciplinary team approach to rehabilitation that spanned clinical, educational and recreational settings. Rathbone was a skilled teacher who promoted inclusion in her pioneering work in corrective physical education and her individualized approach as an educator.
“You will learn that although all men are created equal in their rights to be treated fairly by you, and by all the other forces which will enter their lives. There are others who will need a lot of help. You learn to be kind and considerate and thoughtful of their rights.” – Dr. Josephine L. Rathbone
The context of the times in which she lived help to appreciate Dr. Rathbone’s accomplishments. Josephine Langworthy Rathbone was born on June 25, 1899, in New York City and died in 1989. She lived during times filled with turmoil, violence and massive social change. During her lifetime, she experienced the 1918 Flu epidemic, two world wars, the Great Depression and the Korean and the Vietnam wars. Married women typically worked at home, and single women were found in mainly clerical, teaching and nursing positions, from which they usually were required to leave if they got married or pregnant. After the 1930s, more married women could be found in the workforce, but they still remained in a minority well into the 1960s. Dr. Rathbone was inspired to study hygiene and physical education by her high school PE Teacher, Miss Patrick, the head of the Girl’s Physical Education (PE) Department (note that PE was separated by gender until 1972 on the advent of Title IV), and her father encouraged her to select a profession related to health. Upon graduation in 1917, she entered Wellesley College, earning her B.A. in zoology in 1921, followed by a Teaching Certificate in Hygiene and PE in1922, and an M.A. in 1923. She was awarded one of the first master’s degrees in PE in the U.S.-- and the first awarded at Wellesley College. For her master’s thesis research on energy expenditure of various exercises, she was among the first outside of the military to use a Douglas Bag to collect expired air, and she analyzed the gas content using the newly invented Haldane Apparatus. After graduation, Rathbone went on to become the Director of Health at New Britain Normal School (now Central Connecticut State University) at an annual salary of $1,900. Subsequently she held appointments as Director, Corrective Physical Education at Wellesley College (1925-1930) and at Teachers College, Columbia University (1930-1960). She also was affiliated with Springfield College. While at Columbia, she earned her Ph.D., the first doctoral degree awarded in physical therapy.
Dr. Rathbone lived when participation in sports were considered “unfeminine” -- and even “dangerous” to their reproductive organs—a fallacy that endured well into the later part of the 20th century. Until the 1930s, Dr. Rathbone and her active peers (she was a rower and referee) were constrained by having to wear special “gym” suits extending from neck to ankle, consisting of baggy long sleeved tops and bloomers, and voluminous bathing attire similarly covering most of the body. It is remarkable that women could move, no less engage in active movement and sports, but they persisted!
Dr. Rathbone navigated the prevailing gender-restricted social norms and, nonetheless, she made make an indelible impact on her profession. She was not afraid to speak up and was an advocate for her gender, although she denied being a women’s libber. At that time Columbia University denied women faculty entrance to the faculty club unless escorted by a male colleague and--even then—they had to enter through a separate women’s entrance. An anecdote tells of Dr. Rathbone breaking that rule and walking in via the main entrance along with her male colleagues. She was willing to speak up publicly; notably, she commented in the media on the exceptional contributions of women to the war efforts, countering criticisms that women were unreliable and often absent, and explaining their dual obligations of work and caring for their families for which they frequently did not have other support.
This is only a small snapshot about Dr. Rathbone—she was an amazing woman who accomplished much during her lifetime. Josephine Rathbone is someone whom all can admire for her impactful scholarly work and appreciate for laying the foundations to all who are following in her footsteps.
Each year at the ACSM Annual Meeting the Josephine L. Rathbone Memorial Breakfast Honoring Women in Leadership is held to recognize the contributions of women to the college and the fields of exercise science and sports medicine.
Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., FACSM, is a professor in the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences and director of the Graduate Program in Applied Physiology at Teachers College, Columbia University. She served ACSM as president from 2014-2015, and was presented with ACSM's Citation Award in 2019.