Kevin Stiner | April 17, 2023

Shaping the PE Landscape for Centuries

Contributions of a 19th Century Brockport alum modernized the way people still to this day understand Physical Education by emphasizing the link between science and fitness.

Delphine Hanna, picture from the Perinton Historical Society collection.

Less than 10 years after the Civil War ended, a pioneer in physical education (PE) got their start at Brockport. Women’s suffrage was nearly half a century away, but undeterred Delphine Hanna made tremendous strides in modernizing the PE field.

Delphine Hanna image is courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Delphine Hanna image is courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Hanna graduated from the Brockport Normal School in 1874 and is widely recognized for incorporating a scientific approach to physical education. Presently, the National Association for Kinesiology in Higher Education (NAKHE) has a lecture series dedicated in her honor. The annual lecture series, Delphine Hanna Lecturers, has run for 32 consecutive years and began in 1992.

Time as a schoolteacher in Fairport, NY reinforced Hanna’s belief that both educators and students needed physical education backed by science. She spent the summer of 1884 learning from Dio Lewis, the founder of the Normal Institute for Physical Education.

From there, Hanna accepted an appointment as Instructor in Physical Culture at Oberlin College. She continued to expand her understanding of PE by receiving a medical degree from the University of Michigan, a BA from Cornell University, a certificate from Sargent Normal School, as well as an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oberlin.

When she was appointed full professorship at Oberlin, she broke barriers by becoming the first woman in PE announced at that level, with some publications suggesting she was the first PE professor regardless of gender. The groundbreaking title happened in 1903. Hanna also held the title of Director of Physical Training of the Women’s Department.

Delphine Hanna (far left).

Delphine Hanna (far left) photo is courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.

Her title may initially mislead many to believe that she worked exclusively with women, but Hanna’s work was sought by men. With little supervised instruction being offered to the men at the time, Hanna’s instructions focusing on anthropometric measurement, physical “corrective” studies, and improving overall fitness and health were highly valued.

Many influential PE educators got their start in Hanna’s classroom, including: Luther Halsey Gulick, Fred Eugene Leonard, Gertrude Moulton, Jay Bryan Nash, Jesse Feiring Williams, and Thomas Wood.

Hanna is not the only connection Nash shares with Brockport. The Jay B. Nash Outstanding Major award is handed out annually by the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (NYSAHPERD). Brockport students have collected the honor five times in the past decade and 13 times overall since 1997.

Hanna’s legacy continues to influence Brockport’s modern day PE students. As a recipient in the first group of 48 honored by the Fellows of American Physical Education Association in 1931 she holds an undisputed legacy as a pioneer of modern American PE. Hanna passed away at the age of 86 in 1941, which provided further proof that Hanna was a pioneer in health and physical fitness. Her age was more than double the life expectancy of a woman also born in 1854.

Here’s What a Brockport Lecturer Says About Hanna’s Legacy:

Jack Hogan

Jack Hogan ’71/’80

“During the time that I was teaching the Introduction to Teaching class I felt it essential to recognize the historic figures and leaders that made physical education a key part of a well-rounded person. In my researching this topic I came across Delphine Hanna and how she worked with many of the movers and shakers (in PE) at Oberlin. Her Brockport connection was the “icing on the cake.” I believe that Hanna’s greatest contributions to physical education were her commitment to healthy lives for all people and how she was student-centric, motivating all her students to become difference-makers.”

Jack Hogan ’71/’80, KSSPE Lecturer

Hogan has more than 50 years of experience in PE, including more than 20 years as a faculty member at Brockport. He has taught and coached at various levels, and he is also an alum of the Brockport Golden Eagles men’s soccer program.