© 2022 KRCU Public Radio
Southeast Missouri's NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Almost Yesterday: Bernarr Macfadden - The Father of Physical Culture


It seems like almost yesterday that “the Father of American Physical culture” was born. He was the predecessor of Charles Atlas and a number of individuals who emphasized body building and nutrition as the keys to long and healthy life.

Bernarr Macfadden was born on August 16, 1868 in the small community of Mill Spring, in Wayne County, Missouri.  A weak and sickly child, he was orphaned at age eleven and sent to live with another Wayne County farm family where he found that hard work and good food made him strong and healthy. At age 13 he moved to St. Louis, obtained an indoor office job, and found that his health again declined.

At that point he dedicated himself to a new lifestyle that included fasting and strenuous exercise.  He believed that this routine would enable him to live to be 150 years of age. For the rest of his life he did not eat meat or bread, which he called the “Staff of Death.”  Macfadden began numerous vegetarian restaurants, published over 100 books about his theories and established what he called “Healthatoriums” across the United States.

He established a publishing empire that included such popular magazines as "Physical Culture," "Photoplay," "True Detective," "True Story," "True Romances," and "Sport," and became fabulously wealthy. He became friends with many famous individuals, including Clark Gable, Rudolph Valentino, George Bernard Shaw, Will Rogers, and Franklin Roosevelt.

This healthy young man from Mill Spring, Missouri achieved such fame and fortune that he sought the Office of President, Mayor of New York City, and the U.S. Senate. But, his personal life style, numerous marriages, sexual attitudes, and rejection of scientific medicine made him very controversial. In October of 1955 Macfadden developed an infection, rejected medical treatment, and died.  He was 87 years old.  

Stay Connected
Frank Nickell is a history professor at Southeast Missouri State University.
Latest Episodes