Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1880-1969) was born in Munchen-Glebach, a small village in Dusseldorf, Germany. His mother was a naturopath and his father was an award-winning gymnast.

Joseph had a plethora of illnesses as a child. Asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever attacked his small framed body.

He was often made fun of by his peers, because he was so frail. Some would have acquiesced to this sick lifestyle, but not Joseph. Instead it became the impetus that drove him to discover a bridge to health and fitness. He began early on and by the age of fourteen, he was in peak physical condition. He was chosen to be a model for a series of illustrated anatomical charts. These charts would become wall fixtures in years to come at his private studio. He continued the path and became proficient at skiing, diving, gymnastics, and boxing. And all self taught!

By 1912, Joe traveled to England. While it is not certain why he went or what he did while there, some say he and his brother toured England with a German circus troupe, doing a Greek statue act, while others contend he went to train as a boxer.

What we do know is in 1914 when WWI erupted, his German heritage placed him in a very uncomfortable position in England. He was seen as an enemy and alien and was placed in an internment camp first in Lancaster, then on to Isle of Man. The determined man that he was, this tragedy only pressed him on to find ways to survive. He found that avenue by helping others. He taught his fellow internees self-defense and how to wrestle. His novel fitness training opened a door for him to work with the disabled at the camp.

Soon he began assisting bedridden patients in the camp’s hospital. He helped them regain strength and muscle control. Again, his deep gifted ability drove him to envision a way to help them in a way that no one else had considered. Joe adapted the hospital beds with pulleys, straps, and springs. It is later noted that he said, “I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me.” Little did he know how that one event would change the fitness world forever. These simple little beds became the forerunners of the Pilates equipment we use today (the Reformer, Cadillac, etc.).

Joe was often heard telling about the raging influenza that swept the world in 1918 was kept at bay with the people he worked with at the Isle of Man camp. None of them contracted the flu. When we consider that tens of millions of HEALTHY young people died from this deadly flu, and especially the incarcerated populations such as the camps he was in, no wonder he was so proud of his life giving work.

He settled in Hamburg, Germany after the war. He pursued on with his love of fitness and health. He continued to spread the word about his fitness theories and techniques. About that time the Hamburg Military Police hired him on as the department’s self-defense and physical fitness trainer. Rudolf von Laban, a well known dance choreographer and movement analyst became interested in Joe’s work at the time and incorporated it into his own mission as did Mary Wigman, a well known German dancer and choreographer.

In 1925 Joseph’s keen insight brought him to the United States. The German government asked him to train the new German army. This was a red flag for Pilates as he knew with the political changes going on this may hinder his ability to freely pursue his own path. So he took his love and dream to America.

On his way over, he met with destiny again. It came in the form of a person named Clara. She was a warm and loving young lady. And a kindergarten teacher. It’s been said that she must have quickly fallen in love with Joseph’s enthusiastic personality. In a short time they married. Some reports say she had arthritis, and he designed a personal rehab program using his techniques for her. They lived in New York, and by 1926 they opened the doors to their own personal studio to the public.

Then entered their involvement with professional dancers. Some leading dance organizations were in the same building as their studio, and it didn’t take long for word to get out about his keen ability to work with the human body. Many of these dancers became their first clients. Many well known leaders in the dance community became the greatest proponents of his system: Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Ted Shawn, and George Balanchine to name a few. From 1939-1951 Clara and Joe taught every summer at Jacob’s Pillow, a prestigious camp for dancers. They were helped by using his techniques in fitness and rehabilitation.

Their clientele reached out far beyond dancers to some of the richest and most influential people in the city. Katherine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Jean Vanderbilt were just a few on that significant list. His studio indeed had become the center of fitness in the world of New York City.
Throughout their lives Clara and Joe continued to teach their life changing work. Joe taught up until the late 1960s. He remained in good health until he passed away at the age of 87. During those later years one reporter said of him, “A stocky 175 lbs, with bristling gray hair and pale, childlike blue eyes, he bounces about, pushing here and punching there, like a middleweight fighter skirmishing in the ring.”

In 1966 a fire hit the building where Joe rented storage space. It is noted by Bruce King, a longtime Pilates student and teacher who lived in that building, that Joe went to check on the damages in one of the back rooms. The burnt floorboards gave way and he feel through the floor but was able to lift himself back up out of danger. Imagine at 86 years old? It is not clear the exact reasons he passed on a year later. Some think it may have been complications from the inhalation of the smoke. Regardless, he lived a very healthy and fit life up until the very end.

As a footnote to Joe's passing, it has been stated that Clara wrote a letter to a friend stating that he died of a blood clot.

Ms Clara continued on her work at the studio until 1971. She released the studio over to their trusted trainer, Romana Kryzanowska. Clara visited the studio often until she passed in 1977.

What happened to the studio and the system of Pilates is another chapter to be told later! 2/2/08

Reposted: 6/2/12

Resource: The Everything Pilates Book by Founders of the Pilates Center, Presentations lead by those trained by 1st generation Pilates instructors (2008).