On International Women’s Day, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) celebrates the achievements and legacy of Barbara Drinkwater, Ph.D., FACSM, who led the field in its recognition and understanding of female athletes’ unique needs and experiences.
Having joined ACSM in 1966, Dr. Drinkwater went on to become the college’s first president who was a woman in 1988, bringing to the position both her early experience as a women’s basketball coach and a swimming instructor and her numerous subsequent accomplishments as a researcher of thermoregulation, aging, menstrual function, bone health and exercise, among other subjects. She was also instrumental, in partnership with fellow ACSM researchers, in developing the concept of the Female Athlete Triad, initially as a syndrome with components of disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis, and later as physiological interrelationships between broad spectrums of energy availability, menstrual function and bone mineral density. In her New England Journal of Medicine- and Journal of the American Medical Association-published research, Dr. Drinkwater and her colleagues showed that low bone mineral density in amenorrheic athletes extended beyond trabecular bone in the spine and femur to weight-bearing sites that are largely cortical bone. It would be 15 years before other investigators recognized that osteoporosis is primarily a disease of cortical bone.
But just as important as her research advances were Dr. Drinkwater’s leadership abilities and her impact on individual athletes, researchers and professionals. In 1977, she helped English Channel swimmer Lynne Cox, then an undergraduate student, prepare for rigorous cold-water swims. Cox went on to cross the 2.7-mile Bering Strait from Alaska to the then-USSR in 38° water, the first person to do so; Cox later swam a mile from an icebreaker to the Antarctic mainland in 27° water, the coldest on Earth.
Dr. Drinkwater likewise prepared Arlene Blum and eight other members of the first all-women team of climbers for their ascent of the 10th highest mountain in the world, 26,500 ft. Annapurna in the Himalayas, by studying their fitness and providing them with a tailored conditioning program.
She also frequently advised and assisted ACSM members and researchers. Rosemary Agostini, M.D., FACSM, recalls, “Dr. Drinkwater mentored a group of young women sport medicine fellowship physicians when we were all very energetic and intense. She was able to channel our energy to do essential work and provide care for young women when no one else was taking women athletes seriously.”
Anne Loucks, Ph.D., FACSM, notes, “She really showed us the way forward. And she made herself available not just in an official capacity but as someone always ready to lend an ear, to let you vent and give you practical advice.”
And ACSM Past President NiCole Keith, Ph.D., FACSM, remembers when Dr. Drinkwater predicted she too would break new ground:
“Dr. Drinkwater was a lifelong champion of diversity, and she told me many times that I would be the first Black president of ACSM,” Keith says. “When I subsequently visited with her after my election, she said, ‘I should have spent more time in casinos.’ But then she quickly, and quite seriously, reminded me of my responsibilities to other women and minorities.”
Dr. Drinkwater’s persevering spirit lives on in the women of ACSM, who are in the vanguard not only of research, teaching and the practice of sports medicine and exercise science but in understanding and improving the lived experience of women in the field. Just as they look to Dr. Drinkwater’s accomplishments as a guiding light, so too will girls and young women look up to them for what they are achieving today.
In remembrance, celebration and rededication on International Women’s Day.
Barbara Drinkwater Research Fund
ACSM has established this fund to make possible an important opportunity for ACSM to stimulate scientific discovery and clinical progress in the vital area of women’s health. The fund has a strategic framework to organize and propel forward its efforts in improving the health, performance and well-being of women and girls in physical activity and sports. To give to the fund, lean more here.