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As the world finds itself in the grasp of the current pandemic, we should recall the great influenza pandemic of 1918. The world was still engulfed in
the first World War at that time. Having moved to England in the pre-war years, Joseph Pilates earned a living as a professional boxer, a circus-performer,
and a self-defense trainer at police schools. Once the war broke out he was placed in an internment camp with fellow German nationals, first in Lancaster
Castle where he began to train fellow internees and then on the Isle of Man where he refined his technique and even rigged spring devices to hospital
beds to exercise bed-ridden internees. When the influenza epidemic broke out in 1918, decimating populations all over the world, internment camps were
especially hard hit due to the close co-habitation of internees. By Joe’s account those internees on the Isle of Man camp who followed his fitness
routine survived the flu – not a single one died and left the camp, as a fellow internee put it, "Owing to his training we shall be fit until the end,
bodily as well as spiritually."– a true testament to the effectiveness of the Pilates method.
Those of us who carry on the Pilates method should not stop doing Pilates in this period of pandemic by a different virus – Covid-19.
We should continue to move and most of all to breathe!
Pilates websites refer to Joe’s statements and to interviews with his students, relatives, and friends, which all echo what we have come to believe about his time as a prisoner of war in England.
After digging into the story, a bit more, it would appear, that the true extent to which the influenza epidemic challenged the internees at Knockaloe has been lost to history.
There are two in-depth published histories which help to provide detail about Joe’s life. We understand there’s at least one more in the works.
• Hubertus Joseph Pilates: The Biography, by Javier Pérez Pont and Esperanza Aparicio Romero, published in 2012, available on Google Play and as an ebook.
• Joseph Pilates: A Biography by Eva Rincke, published in German in 2015, the English version is now available (Fall 2018) in hardcopy from the author and through Inner Strength Pilates, Hightstown, NJ.
Both biographies cover the entire 80+ years of Joe’s life. They both do the best they can with the existing records. Pont/Romero, in particular. spent a lot of time with available dates and numbers, which raise questions about Joe’s recollections of his early years
But the documents are far from complete, especially with respect to Joe’s internment at Knockaloe during WW1, the evolution of his methodology in those years and the benefit his early set of exercises afforded his fellow internees in their struggles with the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the “barbed wire disease” of their incarceration.
Let’s take a closer look!
Conditions at Knockaloe. Compared to many POW camps on either side of the conflict, the conditions at Knockaloe were quite good in terms of individual accommodations, the organization of craft and art activities, social, spiritual and athletic activities. There was enough to do at Knockaloe that there even were newspapers to cover the events and advertise upcoming events.
Like any POW camp, however, food quality and variety varied and got worse as food shortages occurred towards the end of the war. There were heating stoves in each lodge, but the walls lacked insulation. In the early days the ceilings leaked, and the floors were often in poor condition. Camp 4, where Joe was interned was one of the last to be constructed at Knockaloe and had therefore included many upgrades that took some time to bring to the other camps. So, it could have been worse for Joe.
There were both indoor and outdoor areas for athletic and social events at Knockaloe. Boxing was a pastime that Joe certainly engaged in.
The Spanish Flu in Joe’s Camp 4 at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man
This is an important aspect of Joe’s internment.
Deaths from the Spanish Flu Among Internees. Records of illness at Knockaloe are limited to the deaths per year at the POW camps and observations by third party humanitarian observers. There were no records of how many contracted the virus, how many got seriously ill, how many survived, only those who died. (Oddly enough we are in that same situation due to the lack of wide-spread testing). Pont/Romero estimated that there were about 300 deaths at Knockaloe relatable to the Spanish Flu in a community of 23,000 internees. They note that the death rate at Knockaloe, about 1.3%, was lower than at other POW camps.
We do know the global mortality rate was 2.5%, considerably higher than most influenzas. Pont/Romero postulate that the reduced death rate at Knockaloe was due to the camp being on the Isle of Man, an island in the middle of the Irish Sea, as well as the practice of isolating sick internees from healthy and the forced segregation ala separate facilities surrounded by barbed wire of the camp population into groups of 1000.
Contraction of the Spanish Flu Among Internees. Neither of the two histories uncovered what it was like to experience influenza in 1918 at Knockaloe. Pont/Romero do not report how many suffered from the flu at Knockaloe, so presumably only deaths were recorded.
Even Joe’s personal statements about that period do not go into that detail. Humans tend to move on and forget what illnesses they recovered from.
The most extended recounting of the impact of Joe’s exercises at Knockaloe come from an interview by Robert Wernick for Sports Illustrated in 1962, when Joe was 80 years old. In that interview Wernick states
“He began demonstrating these exercises to the dejected figures around him (at the camp), 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.”
Again, Wernick is quoting Joe. And there is no mention of how many in the camp did come down with the flu.
One could raise the possibility that none who worked with Joe died or came down with the flu because no one in his camp came down with the flu! We will never know the numbers. But we do know that Pont/Romero estimated that there were around 300 deaths relatable to the flu at the camp with a population of 23,000, which equates to a death rate of 1.3% - lower than 2.5%. But and importantly that means that
• Knockaloe internees were not free of exposure to the Spanish Flu.
The worldwide rate of infection was estimated to be 33%, so that could mean 330 of the internees in Joe’s Camp 4 of 1000 would have experienced the flu. He likely saw it in his camp. It was likely an important topic of conversation at his camp.
• We must trust Joe at his statement that no one who did Joe’s exercises came down with the Spanish Flu.
Joe’s Clients at Knockaloe. Pont/Romero note that due to the physical constraints on movement between camps at Knockaloe, Joe could not have influenced more than 1000 internees in his specific camp. According to Eva, we don't know how many of the internees practiced with Joe, or how frequently they practiced. Eva also says that sources say the training was sporadic and unorganized, but they don't give any specifics. We do know that Joe was presented with a letter from fellow internees thanking him for keeping them fit:
“Owing to his training we shall be fit until the end, bodily as well as spiritually." pg 56, Eva Rincke book.
And although many internees served to administer the many social and athletic events in the camp, Joe is only documented as refereeing a particular boxing match. Again, we are left with Joe’s recollections.
Barbed Wire Disease.
But there was another affliction that also ravaged Knockaloe, the internment camp that Joseph Pilates endured during WW1. That was later to be called “barbed wire disease”. The Swiss physician Adolf Lukas Vischer described a psychiatric syndrome among prisoners of war in WW1, the 'barbed-wire disease' that follows a long-term incarceration and involved boredom, confusion, clouding of consciousness and amnesia. Vischer was the first to identify this as an important clinical issue.
Let’s return to the Wernick interview with Joe and consider a longer quote.
“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 with nothing to look at but an occasional starveling cat streaking after a mouse or a bird.
It was the cats which did it. For though they were nothing but skin and bones - even the most animal-loving prisoners could hardly spare them anything from their own pitiful rations when their own children were begging to be fed - they were lithe and springy and terribly efficient as they aimed for their prey. Why were the cats in such good shape, so bright-eyed, while the humans were growing every day paler, weaker, apathetic creatures ready to give up if they caught a cold or fell down and sprained an ankle? The answer came to Joe when he began carefully observing the cats and analyzing their motions for hours at a time. He saw them, 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.”
So, Joe realized early on the psychological benefits to his exercises. Again, the historians found no numbers for this, but we all recognize the psychological benefits of movement.
It all began at Knockaloe
This is an important take home message. Joe has said as much – that it all began during his internment during WW1. Joe was just starting to pull Contrology together through his time at Knockaloe. To him the collection of internees was like a laboratory for him to study. Because he was just getting his ideas together it is not surprising that there are no records of his teaching his exercises to fellow internees. Had he been put in the same situation today you could imagine that Pilates Mat Class would appear on the daily camp schedule and he would be given permission by the camp wardens to visit other camps to instruct and teach Pilates at the other camps.
You could say
• Contrology, now called Pilates, was borne out of a pandemic.
And here the world again is in a pandemic. Only now, thanks to Joe’s considerable efforts we all have fully developed Pilates available to us to sustain us in this period.
How do we pull this together as a positive statement?
Clearly, we can commemorate that moment in time when Joe created Contrology in a period of confinement and exposure to a deadly viral pandemic and we can be thankful that we have his system available to us today to keep our bodies healthy and minds uplifted in our current period of confinement as we risk exposure to a new deadly viral pandemic.
Joseph Pilates internment in WW1 was most certainly the Crucible which gave rise to Contrology.
Here are some useful references for those who want to dig deeper:
Here are two books on Joseph Pilates' life - we hear that at least one other book about Joe is in the works
Hubertus Joseph Pilates: The Biography, by Javier Pérez Pont and Esperanza Aparicio Romero, published in 2012, available on Google Play and as an ebook.
Joseph Pilates: A Biography by Eva Rincke, published in German in 2015, the English version is now available (Fall 2018) in hardcopy from the author and through Inner Strength Pilates, Hightstown, NJ.
And a third book on the Pilates Masters:
The Pilates Effect: Heroes Behind the Revolution by Sarah W. Holmes, Stacey Redfield, published in 2019 by Red Lightning Books, available in Kindle version on Amazon.