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Athletics and Physical Education at Bryn Mawr College, 1885-1929

The Early Years: The First Directresses

Portrait of Carolyn C. Ladd Hall

Dr. Carolyn C. Ladd Hall, a school friend of M. Carey Thomas and the first Directress of the Bryn Mawr College gymnasium.

Until 1904, women doctors were responsible for overseeing the gymnastics program and the health of the students; most of them possessed a background in the new field of physical education as well1 . Carolyn C. Ladd, later Dr. Carolyn Ladd Hall, was the first Directress and she studied under Sargent at his Training School in 1884-1885. She also studied at the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia during her tenure at Bryn Mawr College, earning her degree in 1889.

Once she received her medical degree, Ladd hoped to gain equal status to the faculty. She wrote to M. Carey Thomas

I am anxious to have the physical training of the students here recognized as an integral part of their college education + I want the conditions under which I am working to bring my branch up to a point of excellent to be as favorable as those under which other officers of the college work for their departments ... I know that the fact that my work has no representation [by a member of the faculty] is a hindrance to its progress. It is, too, an indication of the uncertain support on which the work rests and on which it will remain until I can fight hard enough to win for it firmer foundations. And I maintain that I could fight to better advantage and with greater service to my cause if I, like the combatants for other departments, had a place in the faculty, as one of the favorable conditions for warfare2.

Thomas refused to make Ladd a member of the faculty. However, she still saw a properly educated woman director as essential to the success of the physical education program. Seeking a new directress again in 1898, she wrote to Dr. Dudley A. Sargent that

I am also anxious to find a woman whose academic training will fit her to hold her own in comparison with the other women of our staff. As you know, our teaching force is made up largely of men, but we have three or four women who are their equals in every respect both as teachers and as scholars. For this purpose it would be desirable if we could find a woman who had studied medicine, but this would, I fear, limit our choice too much3.

One of Ladd's successors was Alice Bertha Foster M.D., a woman with an impressive education and resume, including training under Sargent in 1886. She worked to get Bryn Mawr College's physical education program to the standard recognized by the National Association of Leaders in Physical Training, which primarly consisted of revamping the College's system of record-keeping and generating statistics about the students, in accordance with "the newest improved and accepted system"4.


1. Verbrugge, Active Bodies, pp. 14-46.
2 . Hall, Carolyn C. Ladd. "Letter from Carolyn C. Ladd Hall to M. Carey Thomas, Apr 17, 1889." Papers of M. Carey Thomas, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. See also the Papers of M. Carey Thomas reel listing, author index, and author/recipient index.
3. Thomas, M. Carey. "Letter from M. Carey Thomas to Dr. Dudley A. Sargent, Feb 15, 1898." Papers of M. Carey Thomas, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. 
4. Foster, Alice Bertha. "Report of the Director of the Gymnasium."Annual Report of the President of Bryn Mawr College, 1895-1896. Philadelphia, Alfred J. Ferris, 1897, pp. 86.