Joseph Pilates (1880-1967) was born near Düsseldorf, Germany. He was a sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Pilates ignored the advice of the day, to rest and not overtax his weak body. Determined to overcome his physical weaknesses, he studied bodybuilding, diving, skiing and yoga. In his early teens he was already fit enough to pose for anatomical charts, and was certain that he knew the key to good health - exercise!
In 1912, Pilates moved to England and worked as a boxer, circus performer and self-defense trainer. When World War I broke out, German citizens were interned, and Pilates was rounded up and put in a camp with his compatriots. As a nurse in the camp he used his medical position to institute a physical training system based on his experiences working on his own health. None of the inmates in his camp succumbed to the 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed more people than had died during the war. Joseph Pilates was credited with successfully maintaining their health during the epidemic.
Pilates, completely convinced of the value of his system of exercises - which he called "Contrology" - began working with bedridden patients, attaching springs to the hospital beds and devising ways to support their limbs so they could do his exercises. These devices were the origin of the extraordinary spring-based equipment used by Pilates professionals today in conjunction with the mat exercises which were the original system of training he had worked out for himself. After the war, he moved back to Germany, where he employed his fitness programs in training the Hamburg police force.
In 1926, Pilates began to worry about the deteriorating political situation in Germany. By this time he had met and worked out the famous boxer Max Schmelling from New York. Schmelling, aware of Pilates' concerns, encouraged him to emigrate to America and become his fitness trainer. Pilates finally agreed and on the ship to America, he met Clara, the woman who would become his wife and business partner. Together they founded a studio in New York City which continues operation to this day.
Among Pilates' many devotees he numbered Martha Graham and George Balanchine, who encouraged their own students to train with him. Clara and Joe taught students at their New York address well into the 1960s. Sadly, Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 87 years. His death was due to complications from smoke inhalation he suffered in his heroic efforts to save his documents and apparatus when a fire broke out in his studio.