This 100 year old is in awfully good shape

From professionalizing the teaching of phys-ed in schools, to developing new insights into the science of fitness, the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education has much to celebrate as it marks its 100th anniversary.

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

The McGill School of Physical Education's hockey team in 1921, coached by Frank Shaughnessy It all started with what was then an innovative idea – that physical activity was a vital component for the lives of young people and that teachers should be well-trained to promote that idea in schools.

In 1912, McGill became the first university in Canada to offer a certificate in physical education. And while that course of study lasted only a month initially, it marked the beginning of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Of course, physical activity at McGill predates the program. Celebrated figures like R. Tait McKenzie, later renowned for his remarkable sports-related sculptures, and James Naismith, BA1887, the famed inventor of basketball, taught gymnastics and advocated for increased exercise on campus. But the birth of the department spurred a prolonged push “to legitimize the teaching of physical educators at a university,” says Professor Gregory Reid, BEd’70, who joined the department in 1973. As the department evolved, it would play an important role in examining the complex physical and behavioural factors that influence fitness and physical activity.

In addition to his teaching and research duties, Reid has spent the past few years chronicling the department’s history in a book, From Bloomers to Body Mass Index: 100 Years of Kinesiology and Physical Education at McGill. The new book will be launched at a banquet celebrating the department’s history in October, part of a series of anniversary events that will be taking place during McGill Homecoming. Dr. Kerry Courneya, a leading expert on exercise support programs for cancer survivors, will be the featured speaker at McGill’s annual Beatty Memorial Lecture. The department’s research labs, which focus on everything from hi-tech hockey equipment to aging muscles, will be open for public visits.

Though the program was unique when it was first launched, its earliest graduates faced uncertain employment prospects. “There was not an obvious assumption that physical education would even be in the school curriculum [back then],” Reid explains.

Dr. David Pearsall (left) is the co-director of KPE's Hockey Research Group which evaluates the function of skates, sticks and protective equipment with respect to performance and safety (Photo: Owen Egan)

Finding institutions that offered phys-ed courses wasn’t the only obstacle. “Once that argument was made,” he says, “the second argument to make is that you should probably have a person trained in physical education, as opposed to a person who was simply well-skilled athletically.”

But within four to five years of the department’s launch, schools in Montreal had begun hiring its grads, and by the 1920s, the city “was probably the only place in Canada that regularly had trained, certified physical educators in the high school system,” Reid notes.

Those educators were schooled in activities ranging from track and field to gymnastics and team sports. Today, the department emphasizes what Reid calls lifelong appeal. It’s important to keep up with the times, he says. “Despite the wonders of the Olympics that we’ve just enjoyed, you won’t see too many people in their twenties or thirties going out to the local park and throwing the javelin around.”

Initial iterations of the program—which in 1916 moved to a one-year diploma, in 1920 to a two-year diploma, in 1933 to a three-year diploma, and in 1945 to a full degree—also had an academic bent. “Right from the beginning, it offered courses in psychology, courses in exercise physiology, biomechanics and the like,” says Reid. “That educational breadth was actually maintained throughout the first 100 years.” Today, says Reid, the department’s graduate programs are growing rapidly. “We’ve had a great enlargement of the PhD program in the last five years.”

While KPE continues to train teachers for school programs, Dean of Education Hélène Perrault, a professor in the department, notes that KPE’s offerings have diversified over the years. She says the department’s programs in kinesiology are flourishing, equipping students with the physiological and psychological knowledge required to succeed in a variety of settings – fitness centres, seniors’ residences, clinical centres offering exercise programs for rehabilitative purposes and high performance athletic centres run by sports federations. In terms of the range of people that the department’s graduates offer their expertise to, “it goes right across the lifespan,” says Perrault.

KPE graduates include Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock (Photo: Dave Reginek DRW/NHL 1)

Many KPE graduates have gone on to illustrious careers. Kim St. Pierre, BEd’05, and Charline Labonté, BEd’12, contributed to Olympic gold medal victories for the Canadian women’s hockey team. Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, BEd’86, and Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Jamie Kompon, BEd’89, are both Stanley Cup winners. Babcock is one of the honorary chairpersons for the department’s 100th anniversary, serving alongside Mary Wilkinson, BSc(PE)’46, one of the department’s first degree recipients and a former physical education teacher at Macdonald Campus.

Today, the department’s efforts continue to yield impressive results. KPE researchers are well-known for their expertise in examining the role that exercise can play in helping to manage chronic diseases. For instance, associate professor Tanja Taivassalo, BSc’93, PhD’01, a muscle physiologist, has demonstrated that exercise encourages mobility among those afflicted with mitochondrial muscle disorder. Enrique Garcia Bengoechea, an associate professor whose research investigates the promotion of active lifestyles, works with groups in Kahnawake, a Mohawk reserve outside of Montreal, to increase physical activity in the community and combat its high rate of Type 2 diabetes.

Perrault counts the department’s impressive research output as among its greatest achievements since its inception. “We’ve got some of the world’s experts on muscle disease, on muscle biophysics, on aging,” she says. One hundred years ago, the department played a pioneering role in insisting that physical education instructors should be well-trained and professional in their approach. Today, the department continues to play an important role as its diverse research efforts probe the multifaceted aspects of what it means to be fit and healthy.

“We’re still at the forefront,” says Perrault.