Pilates and the Spanish Flu of 1918

As stories of the Corona Virus take over the media, it is interesting to look back at time when other pandemics have occurred. One of the worst of these, The Spanish Flu of 1918, was during Joseph Pilates’ lifetime. It is one of the most deadly on record, with a death toll of 27 – 50 million people.

Pilates himself spent 1915 – 1919 in an interment camp in England, and according to interviews with Joseph Pilates, neither he nor his fellow internees caught this deadly flu virus. He credits this to the regular exercise regime he devised and taught to his fellow inmates, which we now know as the original Pilates Mat Work. Now of course we have to take his word for this, but it was something he was proud of and repeated to many people. So here is a short version of his story, and hopefully it will inspire you to take up Pilates!…

Joseph Pilates, a german national, was living in London in 1914 trying to make a living teaching boxing and bodybuilding. Once the war broke out with Germany, it was difficult for germans to find work in England. Consequently, needing employment, Joseph took a job with a circus. He was travelling with a circus in 1915 in England, when the word came down that all germans had to register as “Enemy Aliens”. Pilates dutifully registered at a local police station, but most likely due to the fact that he was employed in a travelling circus, authorities were suspicious….could this travelling German man be a spy? He and many others were taken to Knockaloe Internment Camp on the Isle of Mann.

“Here, as weeks lengthened into months and years, he watched his fellow-prisoners sink into apathy and despair, with nothing to do but stare at the bare crumbling walls of their prison, nothing to break the daily monotony but the inadequate meals (for the German submarine blockade was slowly starving England) and an occasional walk around the bare courtyard…”

Pilates began to observe feral cats and how, despite their lack of proper food, remained lithe and springy unlike his human companions. From studying their habits, he began to create a series of exercises.

“He saw them [the cats], when they had nothing else to do, stretching their legs out, stretching, stretching, keeping their muscles limber, alive. He began working out an orderly series of exercises to stretch the human muscles, all the human muscles.”

“He began demonstrating these exercises to the dejected figures around him, and since they had nothing else to do, they began to do the exercises too. Awkwardly and timorously at first, but under his firm supervision they became more and more confident, more and more bouncy, like cats. They ended the war in better shape than when it started, and when the great influenza epidemic came sweeping over all the countries that had fought in the war, not one of them came down with it.”

Quote taken from the 1962 interview with Joseph Pilates by Robert Wernick,  entitled “Learning to be an Animal”, for Sports Illustrated.

  • sources for this article:
    • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu and
    • https://www.knockaloe.im/profile_428812.html, The Legacy of Pilates and his time at Knockaloe, The Knockaloe Exhibition and Patrick Visitors Centre and Archive

Pilates’ original matwork is still done today, and is the basis of all of the work done on the apparatus. If you would like to try it, Boditree Pilates and Healing has both private and group matwork available. Boditree Pilates & Healing also has instruction online for people who would like to work out at home. Call us at 604-736-2634 to set up your session today!