Biography of Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1883 - 1967)
Written by Bruce Thomson
Joe was born in Mönchengladbach (small town near Düsseldorf, Germany), on December 9th 1883. At five years of age, Joseph lost the sight of his left eye(1). Careful assessment of Joseph Pilates photographs show the left eye not being in need of correction for long sightedness, and occasionally also a drooping eyelid. Family members alive today state that this was due to a stone wielded by one or more bullies. The loss of the left eye suggests that the attack may have been due to the young Joseph lying on his back while a (right handed) bully straddled over his midriff with stone in hand ready to strike. Stories of bullying are not nice...
I take time to tell this story because I believe it throws light upon the special character of Joseph. It explains for example why Joseph and his brother Frederick (and possibly other family members) took up a strong interest in self defence. During his early teen years, Joseph worked as an assistant in the brewery at Mönchengladbach-Neuwerk. On November 22nd 1900 (just before his 18th birthday), he moved to Heinsberg-Dremmen.
Joseph's father has been described as a prize-winning gymnast (according to official Prussin records, he was a mechanic, or a fitter by profession. What is certainly true is that at some stage, he ran a gym with the help of his wife and family(1). The story that the family name Pilates is "of Greek origin" is not confirmed by family members alive today. They state that he was thoroughly German, and that the family was devout catholic.
His mother, it is stated, "was a naturopath". Family members state that this is not strictly true, that it was more likely that as a resourceful and caring mother of nine, she studied and applied the naturopathic skills as best she could. So... The reality was that she helped out in the family gym. Naturopaths believe in stimulating the body to heal itself, and it is likely that his mother's healing philosophy coloured his own approach to therapeutic exercises. Pilates was said to be a skinny, sickly child. He suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. The older bullies taunted him with "Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ". He was too sickly to fight back or get away, and it was this situation that caused him to begin his life journey to fitness and health, and a desire to help people in similar need.
...turned into an Anatomic Model of Excellence:-
A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book: "I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young." He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By the time he was 14 he had developed his body to the point that he was modelling for anatomy charts!
The Pilates House at 79 Dahlenerstrasse
Below is the house where Joseph spent his earliest years.
Early Adulthood: a boxer, gymnast, skier and diver.
Growing up in Germany, and working at the local brewery, he achieved some success as a boxer and gymnast in addition to being a skilled skier and diver.
First marriage, one daughter
According to Joseph's official affidavit for application for US citizenship, he married one "Maria" about 1905 and they had a daughter on November 30th 1906. Maria died in Germany in 1913 while the daughter (Helene, or "Leni") came to visit Joe in New York in 1939. At that time she was (probably), married with the married name of Friedrich and she lived near Cologne.
In late 20's he moved to England, performed a Roman Gladiator Act:-
In 1912 he went to England for further training as a boxer. He found employment there as a circus performer. By 1914 he had become a star and was on tour - he and his brother Frederick Pilates, performed as Roman Gladiators!
During the War Years, his life was spent as a Hospital "Nurse-Physiotherapist":-
In 1914 after WWI broke out he was interned along with other German nationals in a "camp" for enemy aliens in Lancaster. There he taught wrestling and self-defence, boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment. It was here that he began refining and teaching his minimal equipment system of mat exercises that later became "Contrology".
He was subsequently transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man where his interests in health led him to help out in the sick bay. He became something of a nurse and worked with many internees suffering from illness and incarceration. His caring disposition lead him to request that he help the patients in the infirmary with exercise. Bed rest was the norm in those days, so he was told, "you can do anything you like with them, as long as they stay in bed". So Joseph took the springs from the beds and rigged them up to the bed posts as exercise apparatus for the bedridden! Thus was born the Trapezium table ("Trap Table"). Joseph was both inventive and resourceful in solving the health and exercise needs of his friends and neighbours!
When the 1918 'flu epidemic swept the world, (it killed millions, and an internment camp is an ideal breeding ground for such epidemics to hit hard), none of Joe's followers succumbed! Joseph said (more or less!),
"I invented all zeez machines. Began back in Germany. Was there until 1925. I used to exercise rheumatic patients. I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see?.. It resists your movements, in just ze right way, so zose inner muscles really have to work against it. Zat way you can concentrate on ze movement! You must always do it slowly and smoothly... Zen your whole body is in it."
This part of Joseph's biography re-inforces how adversity develops the common man. Previous to his internment camp life, Joe was an ex-brewery hand, circus performer and part time fitness and defence instructor. Subsequently, it could be said that Joseph Pilates had become a "Nurse-Physiotherapist", with a powerful and revolutionary approach to life enhancing therapeutic exercise. Joseph called this approach "Contrology", and explained it in his book "Return to Life through Controlology".
Training the Hamburg Military Police:-
After the war Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defence and physical training as well as taking on personal clients. It was at this time that he met Rudolf von Laban, a famous movement analyst, who is said to have incorporated some of Joe's theories and exercises into his own work. In 1923 Pilates was invited to train the New German Army but because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany he decided to leave. The urgings of his American based relatives - his uncle (an influential catholic priest), his brother Frederick, and his sister Helen, would have played a part in his decision to move. The Last Half of the "Life of Pilates Bio" was spent in America...
Return to Weimar Germany, married a second time
According to Joe's affidavit for citizenship, Joe had a second wife (Elfriede). They married on October 10th, 1919 in Westphalia, Germany. Since this was just 11 months after the end of World War II, one gets the impression that that this was a speedy romance. Elfriede died in 1931.
Moved to America at age 42
Joseph traveled a first time to New York on the ship the Albert Ballin on October 6, 1925 and stayed there for two months. His stated reason for the trip was "on vacation", but he would also have visited the American offices of patent and trademark attorneys Marks and Clerk of 22 Broadway. These same attornies had recently helped Joe file patents for his Universal Reformer.
Joseph's second trip to new York was on the ship Westphalia which made port on April 14th 1926. This time he stayed for good. And Clara his future long term partner was on board too. She was a kindergarten teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her and give her a new lease of life.
According to pilates biographer Stacey Redfield-Dreisbach, there is no reason to believe that Joseph Pilates "came to America upon the urging of boxing promoter Nat Fleischer". Nevertheless it seems likely that Joseph had fleetingly met with Nathaniel during October 1925 and that the well known boxing publicist did inspire him to stay.
Farfetched however, sounds the story that german boxing legend Max Schmeling aided Joseph to move to America - there is not public record of their having met. Far more likely that Joseph, like many immigrants before him, saw America as the golden land of opportunity.
Joseph Pilates and Anna Clara Zuener
Again according to Stacey Redfield-Dreisbach, Joseph never did marry Clara. What is certain is that by the time of Clara's naturalization in January 1937 she and Joseph shared the same address and probably had done so for a number of years - going by Joeseph's previous probably speedy marriages (or partnerships) - he was not slow at courtship! What is also clear historical fact: when Joseph took a boat trip to Cuba in June 1938 he declared himself "single". Be that as it may Joseph and Clara lived and worked closely together until the time of Joseph's death in 1967.
The first Pilates Studio was surrounded by Dance Studios:-
Upon arriving in New York City Joseph "took over a boxing gym at 939 Eighth Ave" (the Van Dyck Building), alongside several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. It was this proximity that made "Controlology" such an intrinsic part of the life, rehab and training of many dancers: They were sent to Joe to be "fixed".
The Golden Years of the Pilates Biography
In the Pilates biography, 1926 until 1966 were the golden years - From 1939 to 1951 Joe and Clara went every summer to Jacob's Pillow, a well known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. He was a friend and teacher to many renowned dancer/choreographers, and many required their dancers to go to Joseph. One - Hanya Holm - even incorporated Joe's exercises into her students' lessons. Joseph counted many socialites, plumbers and doctors, (just to list a few), as his clients as well.
Philosophy behind the Joseph Pilates Workout
Joseph had a rough but kindly manner with his clients. Even the New York city slicker of those days could tolerate his "boot camp" exercise approach (unlike today, people back then still knew how to walk the sidewalk and climb the stairs). Exercise sessions with Joe were not meant to tire, but rather to invigorate. He would say at the end of the session, "One hour! Hit ze shower!". (If he felt the client was in need of a lesson in personal hygiene or skin care, he was not averse to joining them in the shower, so as to demonstrate how to use the hard bristled scrubbing brush!)
Modern exercise physiology confirms the wisdom of the Joseph Pilates approach: you cannot efficiently build muscle bulk/flexibility, while at the same time performing a hard aerobic workout - doesn't work; just leads to unnecessary extra stress loading. Such sessions should always be performed separately.
Pilates Biography, Publications, Philosophy:-
In order to learn more of Joseph Pilates' philosophy and biography, you need to read his books. They are still in print, and make good reading:
- Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education (1934) by Joseph H. Pilates and Judd Robbins (Editor)
- Pilates' Return to Life through Controlology. (1945) Joseph H. Pilates, William J. Miller, Judd Robbins (Editor) (contains a set of 34 classic Pilates mat Exercises).
Joseph Pilates was something of a health guru. - Nevertheless, he was renowned for liking cigars, whiskey and women. He was the life of many parties, and was to be seen running on Manhattan streets, in the dead of winter, in his habitual "bikini bottom" training attire! - He believed in fitness supporting life's rich goals.
Death of Joseph Pilates
Was it a Flamboyant Ending?
No! - As always, the truth is never so exciting as the myth. The 82 year old Joseph Pilates did not charge into a burning smoke filled studio to rescue valuables, and firemen did not find him hanging from burning floor joists! The following is a quote by Pilates "Elder" Mary Bowen :-
"The Fire" - People often ask me "Did Joe Pilates die in a fire?" One woman in London where I was giving a workshop at the Pilates Foundation of UK last May said she had read that it was so in The New York Times. To set the record straight - no, Joe did not die in a fire. He died two years later, in 1967, of advanced emphysema from smoking cigars for too many years (which he took up out of disappointment that he wasn't taken more seriously by the powers that be, especially physicians, during his lifetime). His personal friend, Evelyn de la Tour, shared that with me. There was a fire in 1965 in the storage room at the back of his floor. The studio and his and Clara's apartment were in the front of the building and were undamaged. Bruce King had an apartment near the storage room. He had to move out due to severe smoke damage. The day after the fire Joe went to inspect the extent of loss to his possessions in the storage room and one of his feet fell through a hole in the floor scrapping his leg. That was the extent of his injury from the fire.
The fire was in January 1966. Joseph's actual death was in October 1967
Pilates Obituary New York Times
Joseph's New York Times obituary records that he died at Lenox Hill Hospital. He would have been (born December 9th 1883) 83 years old at his death. The obituray reads like an advertisement for Contrology - very fitting indeed! He is described thus:
a white-maned lion with steel blue eyes (one was glass from a boxing mishap), and mahogany skin, and as limber in his 80's as a teenager
- Joseph Pilates died in October 1967, at the age of 83.
The Joseph Pilates Fitness Craze
Clara Pilates, regarded by many as the more superb teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until the end of her life 10 years later, in 1977. Initially, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher's studio in Beverly Hills. The Pilates fitness craze presumably blossomed from there. Joseph called his style of fitness "Controlology", but the public call it simply "Pilates". Where the stars go, the media follow, and when the media follow, fashion follows!. It was the late 1980s, and the Pilates fitness boom started. "I'm fifty years ahead of my time," Joe claimed - and he was right. No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has truly returned to life and entered the mainstream of fitness, and has even established itself as a physiotherapeutic modality in its own right: Today, perhaps ten million people world wide regularly practice "Pilates", and the numbers are growing! Its a great tribute to the Pilates Life and Biographical Life Story!
The Real Joseph Pilates Legacy:-
Joe Pilates' greatest legacy remains his 34 Contrology Exercises. Many modern Pilates schools teach them differently. Very often, the exercises lose something in the translation. For example: the editor (Bruce Thomson) has considerable problems with tight muscles and trigger points. Many supposedly sound physiotherapeutic interpretations of Joe's work do not fully cater for the problem of tight muscles. But the Joe Pilates 34 exercises do. They do this by working the muscles over their longer range, and by "finding the stretch". Modern interpreters say that Joe's exercises are too difficult in their original form. But Joe had an answer for this:-
"Uncle Joe said when you did the hundred, you started with your legs 2 inches off the floor. If you could only do 10 repetitions, that's all you did that day....until you could do 11."
Joseph Pilates Quotes:-
- The Pilates Method: "my work is 50 years ahead of its time".
- Joseph's definition of physical fitness: "the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure - Everything should be smooth, like a cat. [The exercises are done lying, sitting, kneeling, etc]... to avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs... natural movements ... with the emphasis on doing and being".
- "A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy callisthenics or forced contortion."
- "Patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavor."
- The goal of Controlology (Pilates Method) ..... "the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind and the ability to perform life's daily activities with zest and ease."
- "I invented all these machines. Began back in Germany, was there until 1925 [or was that 1923?], used to exercise rheumatic patients. I thought, why use My strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movements in just the right way so those inner muscles really have to work against it. That way you can concentrate on movement. You must always do it slowly and smoothly. Then your whole body is in it."
- In explaining Controlology's guiding principle, Pilates liked to quote Schiller: 'lt is the mind itself which builds the body'.
- "I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They'd be happier." - Joseph Hubertus Pilates, in 1965, age 86