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The Sporting Life at Jeff: Putting the Black and Blue in Jeff’s Colors

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JMC pennant, ca. 1900.

College sports. Not surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin (an exercise nut himself) was the first to suggest it. In 1749 he published “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsilvania.” The Philadelphian philosophe suggested an Academy for boys, which would include among its instructional programs:

That to keep them in Health, and to strengthen and render active their Bodies, they be frequently exercis'd in Running, Leaping, Wrestling, and Swimming &c.

But it was not until educators who, in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, expressed concern about the health and well-being of American students that physical exercise became part of the curriculum. Calisthenics and simple exercises were the extent of this “physical education” established to compensate for the (assumed) debilitating effects of excessive lucubration. With beliefs based on the ancient Greek paradigm of balance in mind and body, physicians and educators of the 1880s and 1890s, widely published and lectured for “phys ed”.

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Jeff vs. Medico-Chi, Nov. 25, 1905. Final score: JMC 0, MCC 22.

Soon the classical model of competitive sports also came to college. Colleges across the nation built campus gymnasiums and “exercise halls” fitted with appropriate paraphernalia and hired physical trainers to provide instruction for both men and women students. Thus began America’s love affair with sports in Academia.

Team events among schools quickly formalized and rivalries just as quickly became major traditions. Football swiftly became the dominant sport for colleges and universities. But with the barest of body armor, few rules and noninterventionist views of referees, many injuries and even deaths became regular headlines. One of the offensive plays was the notorious “flying wedge,” a mass formation aimed at advancing the ball through and over the bodies of the opposing team.

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“Class and Field Songs,” JMC booklet, 1908.

The season of 1905 reportedly witnessed 149 serious injuries and 18 deaths. Although President Teddy Roosevelt encouraged conferences on reforms, it was the death of Harold Moore, a Union College halfback, who suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage in a game against New York University, which prompted the outraged NYU Chancellor, Henry M. MacCracken, to finally convene an emergency meeting of thirteen institutions. Although MacCracken personally advocated abolishing the game altogether, under his leadership the parties initiated changes in football playing rules. At a subsequent meeting, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was founded by 62 members. It altered its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1910.

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Cartoon “fan” from 1909 JMC yearbook.

Jefferson Medical College began its own football squad in 1896 and “played a few games merely for the love of the game. It was a successful team and won all its games.” By 1899 Jeff football was established and was a component of the nascent Jefferson Athletic Association. The new 1898 College building was furnished with a gymnasium and team funding was cobbled together from enthusiastic faculty, outside contributions and ticket sales. A 1902 game was watched by 3,000 “rooters.”

Intercollegiate contenders included Princeton, Maryland Medical College, Fordham, and local teams; University of Pennsylvania, Haverford, Swarthmore, Ursinus, and Philadelphia Dental College. Jeff played some athletic clubs and even Chester Military Academy, and Pennsylvania Military College. But without a doubt, Jeff’s most hated rival was “Medico-Chi.” The Medico-Chirurgical College, was a medical school located at Cherry and 18th Streets. It was formed in 1881 and merged in 1916 with the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania (when they became UPenn’s Graduate School of Medicine).

Although Jeff had a “field surgeon” on hand, the expected violence is gleefully evident from one of the team cheers of 1908:

Jefferson! Jefferson!
     Poor old Chi, Chi we will beat;
We’ll knock out the red and green:
     Jefferson, Jefferson,
Kick ‘em, knock ‘em,
     Trick ‘em, block ‘em,
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JMC football team, 1896.

This year the Archives & Special Collections acquired two items relating to the earliest football teams at Jeff: a photograph of the 1896 team and an early pennant in the school colors of black and blue.

The Jefferson football team officially ceased after the winning season of 1909. Perhaps it was due, in part, to the over-attention the newspapers accorded them, deemed perhaps inappropriate or frivolous in the light of the 1910 Flexner Report (which assessed the abilities of U.S. medical schools) that killed the squad. In JMC’s future, football would be relegated to an occasional recreational scrimmage of medical students on a casual, intramural level.

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Burgess L. Gordon, M.D.

Long Distance Runners and Jeff

In the late 1920s Dr. Burgess Gordon (JMC graduate 1919) joined the staff of the Diseases of the Chest Department at Jefferson. A keen researcher, he was interested in the effects of exercise on circulation and respiration. He studied marathon runners in Boston in 1924 and received funding to observe long distance runners prior to, during and after the “American Marathon” or more popularly known as, the “Bunion Derby.” This transcontinental footrace was held in 1928 and offered a purse of $25,000 to the winner. It followed Route 66 from L.A. to Chicago and from there to N.Y. The race attracted both professional athletes and desperate amateurs. A local newspaper added that:

“…the greatest race has attracted scientific circles, the Jefferson Hospital of Philadelphia has sent two experts to accompany the runners. Dr. Burgess Gordon and Dr. John C. Baker of the Jefferson Hospital…and will examine the athletes to obtain scientific data. For four years the Jefferson Hospital has been conducting experiments with marathon runners to learn why one man possesses endurance and also ascertain the effect of long distance running on the human body.” The Los Angeles Examiner, March 3, 1928.

The race covered more than 3,400 miles. Out of the 199 starters only 55 crossed the finish line. Gordon and Baker recorded data on-site and three days after the end of the race they gave complete physical exams to 25 finishers at the Chest Department of Jefferson Hospital, who were bussed down from New York. According to a recent film documentary on the race, “Dr. K.H. Begg, a prominent medical expert, predicted that the race would take five to ten years off [each] of the runners’ lives.” Drs. Gordon and Baker’s conclusions reflected a different prognosis:

“The data suggest that the comparatively normal human body, provided with adequate food and rest, may acquire during prolonged exercise unusual capacity for work without apparent untoward effect.” Transactions of College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 1929, vol. li, p. 157.

Anecdotal correspondence with participants after the completion of the race cited some answers to a questionnaire in order to determine “their return to normal life”:

“I am in good health, in fact I never felt better in my life… After returning to my home I climbed a mountain 11,824 feet high and experienced no difficulty… My weight increased from 140 to 166 pounds and I became tired; then I started to train and now feel fine and will enter races in the future… There is not one thing wrong with me…”

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John C. Baker, M.D.

Dr. John Cushing Baker tragically (and ironically) died of pneumonia in 1929, having only recently graduated from JMC in 1926. Dr. Burgess Lee Gordon continued his scientific research at the Chest Department, designed a stethoscope improvement (“Gordon stethoscope”), wrote a landmark paper on pulmonary asbestosis and eventually became Director of two of Jefferson's hospital divisions (Barton Memorial and White Haven Sanitarium). He served as the first man to be president of Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1951. He died in 1984 at the age of 93.

Athletics Today

Athletics on the Jefferson campus continue in the form of the Sports Medicine Center, which is dedicated to diagnosing and treating sports-related injuries. Student sports also flourish through the auspices of the Student Activities Office. Tournaments are held in squash, racquetball, softball, basketball and volleyball. But alas, still no football.

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