Body Culture and Physical Culture

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Physical fitness movements can be defined as those efforts to maintain bodily health and increase physical strength and stamina. The ideal of the physically fit man or woman has ancient roots, as evidenced by the depictions of muscular heroic figures engaged in warfare or sporting competition in the sculpture of the Mediterranean classical era or of ancient India and Southeast Asia. Epic poetry, sagas, and other chronicles of the origins and history of peoples, such as the Norse Edda or Virgil's Aenead, carefully described the physical characteristics of their larger-than-life warrior heroes, whose stature and stamina were out of reach of the ordinary mortal.

The men and women of these tales, paintings, and sculpture were not the only human forms depicted as ideal types in the ancient and premodern world. Figures of great religious devotion, such as Christian saints, were often thin and ethereal, suggesting that the spiritual life was the antithesis of the physical. Renditions of the Buddha, on the other hand, were usually round in form and placid in expression, perhaps reflecting a closer connection between physicality and spirituality, even as the faith itself stressed transcendence over the physical.

Warfare, Sport, Competition, and Prowess

Common practices of and beliefs about sport and recreation, military preparedness, domestic animal breeding, and medicine in England in 1600 were the foundation of nineteenth-century Americans' discovery of physical fitness. Americans blended new ideas and folk practices from these seemingly disparate roots to produce an evolving—though often contested—ideal of the healthy body and, by extension, the healthy society.

The nearly constant state of war between the major European powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia—demanded much from their citizens, not only to pay for war but also to provide men for fighting. Thus, in 1617, when King James I of England encountered a small-scale uprising of the Lancashire peasantry over a clerical ban on sporting activities on the Sabbath, he concluded that allowing sport and games was in his military as well as political interest, no matter how potent the church was. As historian Nancy Struna demonstrates in People of Prowess, sports and exhibitions of physical skills in the British colonies of North America were hotly contested, both as individual events and as policy issues. James's "Declaration of Sport" (subsequently referred to as the "Book of Sports") gave royal sanction to morning church attendance on the Sabbath, but specifically protected the tradition of sport during the remainder of the day. Hurling, wrestling, football, and blood sports such as bull and bear baiting were long-established diversions that James reckoned necessary for developing effective warriors. These were the proletarian or peasant counterparts to the aristocratic activities more closely associated with battle, such as fencing, archery, jousting (horsemen try to unseat each other), and tilting (horsemen trying to spear a target object while riding at full "tilt").

Horse racing was both an opportunity to gamble and show off one's ability to recognize superior mounts; and a diversion that enriched the gentry's and Crown's military arsenal. The foundation for what in the late nineteenth century would become the eugenics movement was laid in the control and recording of animal breeding practices in horses well before the American Revolution. Scrutiny of human genealogy among the aristocracy in both Europe and the United States was likewise a precursor to eugenics, but not for purposes of breeding for physical prowess or strength.

By the late eighteenth century, horse racing and gambling had gone well beyond the status of friendly competition in the southern colonies of British North America. In villages, towns, and the countryside men and women gathered to pursue their passion for the fast horse, provoking some of the same chiding from clerics that had occasioned James's "Book of Sports." Critics of these "horse-shed Christians" lambasted them for their perfunctory church attendance, and for their enthusiasm for what historian Elliot Gorn in The Manly Art described as "stomp and gouge" fighting. But, like King James, squires and ordinary farmers valued the military potential of fighting and racing, given the nearly constant frontier skirmishes and outright warfare not only between Europeans and Native Americans, but also between the European powers fighting wars on American soil. Military readiness also assuaged fears engendered by slave insurrection.

The evolution of medical theory also contributed to the genesis of fitness movements. Dissection of cadavers had allowed physicians to gain greater knowledge of the structure of the body, but exploration of the dead did little to reveal the dynamics of the living organism. Thus, while anatomy was relatively well known among physicians, the interrelationships of the blood, flesh, and bones was speculative, often based on a priori principles of equilibrium modeled after the workings of machines—especially clocks.

Traditional medical theory held that the healthy individual had in balance four "humours"—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Illness and death were a result of tangible or spiritual incursions that caused disruption in the humoural balance. Human intervention might right the difficulty. Bleeding relieved "pressure"; purgation of the digestive system with calomel (mercuric chloride) or some other substance worked on "bile" disaffections; prayer was more appropriate for those dis-eased by spiritual causes. Often a combination of treatments was employed. Some patients even survived.

In the United States, public advocacy of physical fitness and its goals began around 1830. The first number of the monthly magazine The Journal of Health appeared in September 1829; Dr. Edward Hitchcock's compendium of observations on the health and fitness of Americans, Dyspepsy Forestalled and Resisted, or Lectures on Diet, Regimen and Employment, was published in 1831. Both works traded upon the pervasive enthusiasm for reform and regeneration in the United States in this era, and heralded an impetus and obsession that has abated little since. Published in Philadelphia by four physicians, The Journal of Health argued that individual health depended on temperance in diet and drink, rest and moderate exercise, and linked personal fitness to the health of the body politic.

The American Turf Register, which also first appeared in September 1829, was for the most part a magazine for the hunter, fisherman, and especially the aficionado of the racetrack. Published in Baltimore, it was filled with records of races and accounts of hunting and fishing, with hints for the most effective methods of tracking and bagging game and luring and catching fish. But the magazine also included articles on the bloodlines of famous horses and (less commonly) hunting dogs, and the best means of keeping them healthy and productive in the field or on the track. Early issues contained large foldout charts of champion horses' lineage, with written descriptions of the benefits and drawbacks of certain unions. Diseases of the animals were discussed at length.

The sporting magazine brought its readers—and reveals to historians—an empirical approach to medicine and fitness that had been in common practice for generations. Years of painstakingly recording equine lineage, racing performance, and careful study of the anatomy and diseases of horses laid the groundwork for empirical approaches to human fitness and health. Religious linkages of ill health to sinful behavior, and the abrupt and wide chasm the human species had established between itself and the rest of the living world, compromised traditional medical practice for humans. Training the scientist and the physician's eye on the beasts and plants, however, was acceptable; such inquiry into the nature of human beings could be—or was—a much more treacherous endeavor.

Reform of Spirit and Body

By 1830, however, the religious and cultural context of the United States had become receptive to considerations of human health and fitness. It was not that the horsemen and the huntsmen had convinced the rest of the populace to employ their methods of caring for their animals to the health of humans. Instead, the religious pressures against the scientific examination and treatment of human diseases had eased, opening up the practice of medicine and the pursuits of fitness and health to the scientific inquiry for which the sportsmen had created a model.

The alteration was grounded in both the Second Great Awakening and the political climate of the United States. The pursuit of health and fitness was both a scientific revolution and a religious refocusing of the populace. Beginning in the waning years of the eighteenth century, emotionally powerful religious revivals brought tens of thousands of newly "awakened" Protestants to their faith. Some of the newly regenerate believed that the prophecies contained in the New Testament indicated that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. Others believed that a more gradualist approach, in which human agency was critical in the preparation of the Earth for the return of Christ, was mandated by the Bible. Whatever their differences in interpretation, these newly committed adherents were steadily growing in number in the early nineteenth century, and all believed that sin had to be eradicated. The sins were many—ill treatment of the insane and those unable to see, hear, or speak; drunkenness; an apparent rise in criminal behavior; and, for some, slavery. The solutions devised included "asylums" for the insane, special modes of education and treatment for those with physical limitations, temperance, "penitentiaries" to reform the criminal, and abolitionism or colonization of African Americans.

Physical fitness and health reforms were an integral part of this broad movement. "Perfectionists" sought to eliminate ill health as a necessary precursor to the Second Coming. Some groups formed model societies apart from the "world"; others sought reform through socially connected channels such as medicine, dietary reform, temperance; and physical education and exercise.

Medical theory and practice was multifaceted and often contradictory. "Regular" physicians favored strong, "heroic" intervention, provoking the "crisis" they thought necessary for cures with purgatives, plasters, and bleeding. They were challenged by a coterie of "alternative" physicians whose patient practices grew as licensing restrictions eased throughout most of the United States by the 1830s.

The prick of the lancet and the pain of the purge provided the gentler ministrations of the homeopathic and botanic physicians and the water curists with an environment literally aching for them. Homeopathy's stress on the collection of personal medical history and the infinitesimally dilute solutions of natural materials that produced symptoms similar to the disease to be treated sat well with patients. Botanic physicians' avoidance of bleeding and reliance on plant materials likewise found favor, as did the water curists' use of cold and hot water to relieve ailments.

In the context of religious and secular reform activities, treating disease was less important than avoiding it. By taking steps to prevent disease and debility (defined as a general weakness), one was taking part in the great social and ultimately religious experience that would bring on the millennium. Many of the most important advocates of health reform in this era were in some way connected with the ministry, whether as churchmen or as close relatives of them.

Americans were criticized from the pulpit, the news desk, and the book for their drinking and eating habits. In 1856, Catherine Beecher—the sister of minister Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the daughter of minister Lyman Beecher—published Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families. She criticized Americans' drinking and eating habits, alcohol consumption, penchant for fatty and greasy foods, tobacco consumption, clothing styles, and lack of exercise. She outlined a series of calisthenic exercises for boys, girls, men, and women, and provided hints on the sorts of clothing women ought to wear.

Other health reformers such as William Alcott, Sylvester Graham, Ellen White, Joel Shew, and R. T. Trall pushed vegetarianism and hydrotherapy as the pathway to health. In their critique of Americans' physical condition, each linked the body and the mind with the condition of the nation as a whole. All worried about a vaguely described and even more ill-defined condition termed "nerves," or "nervousness." In 1830, Edward Hitchcock argued that "nervous maladies [are] already a formidable national evil." Four years later Dr. Charles Caldwell, in Thoughts on Physical Education, worried about the "drain on the nervous fountain" that strong drink caused. He argued that the "inordinate sum of insanity, which prevails in the United States, is too plain to be held in doubt . . . a result of the cankered and fierce religious and political passions which are constantly goading the American brain" (p. 93).

The mobile and seemingly wide-open nature of American society provided room for more outré solutions to the problems of ill health and weakness. Early experimentation with direct-current electricity from wet-cell batteries seemed to indicate that the nervous system was in some way electrical. Looking for a panacea to the variety of ailments plaguing Americans or just looking for a quick buck, enterprising individuals figured that they might reinstate some of the "lost" supply of the patient's "nervous energy" or "vital force" by connecting the debilitated to the new source of power. Others reasoned that since electricity could enable electroplating base metals with precious metals, reversing the process of electrolysis would remove the body's metallic "impurities." Fortunately the power source was too weak in most of these "electric baths" to electrocute the unfortunates.

An "Athletic Revival"

In 1860, the national magazine Harper's Weekly noted that there was an "athletic revival" afoot in the United States. Similar movements were present in England, Sweden, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The 1860 boxing match between the American John C. Heenan and the Briton Thomas Sayers, according to historian Elliot Gorn's The Manly Art, garnered more attention than any other athletic event in midcentury America and linked boxing—and by extension the boxer's body form—with manliness and fitness.

Soon after the big fight, Bostonian Diocletian Lewis began his campaign to improve the fitness of Americans, in much the same way Beecher had done five years earlier. After two failed magazines on the subject, Lewis, an advocate of women's rights, homeopathy, and temperance, and a calisthenics instructor, published New Gymnastics for Men, Women, and Children in 1862. The book was a great success, and Lewis toured the country for years afterward preaching his gospel of exercise, moderation in diet, and opposition to "regular" medicine.

Like many of the advocates of physical fitness in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Lewis was a committed Protestant and a "muscular Christian." Seeking to jettison the image of Christ as weak and effeminate, muscular Christians imbued Christianity with the masculine vigor of elite sportsmen and the working class. Based on the early nineteenth-century "Tom Brown" novels of English author Thomas Hughes, muscular Christianity provided middle-class and wealthy Americans with a socially acceptable linkage between religion, sport, and fitness activities and in turn altered popular conceptions about the ideal body types for men and women.

Late eighteenth-century paintings and engravings of European and American elite males depicted them as refined and at "ease" by means of a gentle S-curve of the body. Women of similar station were usually shown in a similarly relaxed position, with rounded but not overly fleshy bodies. Academic painters seldom painted men and women of ordinary means, and the itinerant artists who painted them were often unable or unwilling to render their subjects in poses that were not angular and stiff. But the physical demands of everyday life on farms and in the trades suggest that the actual body form—and the ideal type—of men and women was somewhat heavyset and muscular. Poorer women cooked with iron pots and skillets that were heavy when empty. When filled and lugged into hearth fires, they were of formidable weight and required muscular backs, legs, shoulders, and arms. Hauling water and fuel to the hearth and the tasks of the kitchen garden gradually built female bodily bulk. Workingmen were much the same size; the demands of field, factory, and workshop were inconsistent with diminutive musculature.

The boxers and the athletes changed the elite ideal, at least for younger people, after the Civil War. While the robber barons might be enormous about the middle (and were lampooned for that in the press), many high school and college athletes on rowing, baseball, and football teams were lean and sinewy. Some coaches went to extremes: Charles Courtney, the rowing coach at Cornell, starved his teams of food and water until he provoked a rebellion in 1904. Contact sports such as football attracted large—but not fat—"bruisers," as did the wrestling and boxing rings. Weight lifters such as George Windship ("the Boston Hercules"), wrestlers such as George Hackenschmidt, and showmen such as Eugene Sandow brought another physical role model to the masses. Sandow's singular muscle definition—in particular his rippling stomach and abdominal muscles—indicated that humans could indeed make themselves look like Greek statuary. In his exhibition in the Ziegfeld Follies he simply struck poses on a cleverly lit stage, often wearing only sandals and a form of loincloth. In popular "cabinet" photographs he sometimes wore only an oak leaf. His understudy and successor in the Follies, Bernarr MacFadden, traded upon health concerns and sensationalism for decades afterward, publishing, among other products, Physical Culture and True Story magazines.

Photographs of normal people from the turn of the century indicate that the ordinary adolescents and young adults were not much different in musculature than their modern analogs. The most popular model for young adult women was the "New Woman" and the "Gibson Girl" (modeled after the popular illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson). These women were buxom, but lacked the fleshy lower bodies found in romantic paintings of the era, resembling instead the dreamy beauties of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as the Briton Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Xenophobia and Neurasthenia

Athletes and slender young adults were alluring ideals in the late nineteenth century. They were the antithesis of what earlier generations had termed the "nervous" American. Some Americans had seen only decline as the price of the largesse of the Industrial Revolution—more goods, more money, and less physical activity for the middle class and the wealthy. When the Report of the Federal Census of 1880 revealed that white, Anglo-Saxon, and northern European families were having fewer children than they had had in the early nineteenth century, social and medical critics concluded that the "Anglo-Saxon race" was committing "suicide." Debilitated by their white-collar desk jobs and their excessive book work, these "brain workers" were losing ground to the sturdier and more fertile working-class Catholic and Jewish "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe. This explanation was perhaps most clearly stated in Madison Grant's xenophobic polemic of 1899, The Passing of the Great Race.

More than any other single factor, neurasthenia propelled the fitness activities of the turn of the century and the genesis of the physical education movement. Greasy foods and food preparation brought Americans a lifelong case of indigestion. Tuberculosis and other diseases regularly swept thousands to an early grave. But dyspepsia could be easily treated and prevented, if people had the will. By 1900, healthier foods—especially breakfast cereals—were marketed as easy-to-prepare antidotes to the rest of the normal daily diet. Patent medicine hucksters offered their cures. Contagious diseases were frightening, but after the discovery of the connection between microbes, filth, and disease in 1883 (when the germ theory of disease was first revealed to the professional and lay public), it seemed that human agency could conquer these maladies through cleanliness crusades and (eventually) inoculation.

Neurasthenia was different. In his treatise of 1881, American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences, a Supplement to Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia), physician George Beard linked the condition to a white-collar economy and society. Adrift from their often-romanticized moorings in a "golden age" of handwork and productive labor, the new middle class and wealthy suffered for their success. (The working class had no such troubles; life in the factory and city was judged no challenge to one's mental well-being.) The price of "civilization" was ennui, lack of energy, and a host of other ill-defined and unquantifiable maladies, some of which were sexual in nature. Impotence, "lack of vital force," apparent low fertility in men and women, and other discomfitures modern analysts might call "stress" seemed to be plaguing Americans.

Sexual functions were a special concern. Men were urged to limit ejaculation to the act of procreation to maintain their "life force" and energy, practicing what the medical community and their cultural counterparts called the "spermatic economy." Masturbation was strictly forbidden, considered both a sin and a threat to physical and mental health. Young women were warned about certain bicycle seats lest they accidentally (and then purposefully) practice the "solitary vice" while taking part in the "bicycle craze" of the turn of the century. Self-control, social control of the working class, control of alcoholic spirits, even control of the elements of the economy that threatened free enterprise provided the foundation for the political movement of the Progressives, temperance advocates, and suffragists in the early twentieth century. Long before Sigmund Freud wrote about sublimation, health and fitness advocates had spotted a useful concept for their cause.

Numerous remedies for neurasthenia were offered. Camping and adventuring in the outdoors as a "tonic" to the desk-drained and parlor-weary became broadly popular, especially after guidebooks such as William H. H. Murray's Adventures in the Wilderness was published in 1869. Entrepreneurs built resorts and spas for those in need of vacation. A few spas, such as the Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, and the Catskill Mountain House and "Our Home on the Hillside" in New York State had catered to the unwell for decades before "Murray's Rush," but they had a limited clientele. By 1900, private and public "camps" for young, old, tired, ill, and the merely bored opened all over the United States, offering water treatments and an array of dietary and exercise regimens to cleanse, feed, and strengthen visitors for the rigors of white-collar struggle in the Darwinian world of the office. From Hot Springs in the South to cold air in the Minnesota winter, there was a cure for anyone who needed it.

The active sporting man and woman had no need for such cures and treatments. A life of strenuous activity, in the outdoors if possible, was the best preventive. The exemplar of this position was Theodore Roosevelt. On his ranch or in the woods hunting with his dogs and guides, the "Rough Rider" made the case for action. His conquest of childhood asthma and seemingly boundless energy propelled him to fame as a politician, writer, and soldier and to the presidency in 1901. But as Roosevelt was achieving mythic status in the Spanish-American War, nearly one-third of the enlistees were failing their physical examinations for military service. Concern over this and other evidence of physical decline helped physical education gain a stronger foothold in American schools. Teachers colleges expanded their curricula to include training physical educators, and regular classes and sports became integral parts of the grade and high school experience.

Fitness and self-control were a harder "sell" after World War I, in the giddy expansiveness of the postwar economy and the new freedoms enjoyed by the young. Brothers John H. and William K. Kellogg, C. W. Post, and other cereal barons, in business since the late nineteenth century, still found a ready market for their goods, often pitching grains and bran as a way to combat the "sluggishness" and "auto-intoxication" wrought by constipation. Advertising agencies devised clever strategies that traded on the insecurities of white-collar jobs, in which quantifying the successes and capabilities of employees was difficult. Failure to "get ahead" might be due to lack of energy or even worse, qualities about which one's "best friends" would remain silent.

These afflictions seemed irrelevant in the Great Depression and in World War II. Sporting figures such as Joe Louis, "Red" Grange, "Babe" Zaharias, and Bill Tilden kept the athlete and athletic body in the public eye, but after 1941, the armed forces promised fitness would come to all who served. The masculine ideal body form remained the same through the 1930s and 1940s, though the female film stars and pinups of the period regained some of the curves of the Gibson Girl that the 1920s "flappers" had rejected.

Cold War and Counterculture

The Cold War and the stalemate in Korea helped raise the question of Americans' physical condition and preparedness in the late 1950s. John Kennedy, who conveyed an aura of youthful vigor and athleticism even as he suffered from Addison's disease and a severely damaged back, defeated Richard Nixon in part because the latter seemed less fit and because Kennedy used his physical presence as a backdrop for his charge that the United States had lost "prestige" in the world. The successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 made Kennedy's task easier. Soon after his narrow election to the presidency, he established the President's Council on Youth Fitness, headed by the University of Oklahoma's legendary football coach, "Bud" Wilkinson. Decrying the state of American children's health and fitness, the "new frontiersmen" emphasized physical education as well as mathematics and science. The Royal Canadian Air Force exercise manuals became bestsellers in the early 1960s.

Like other bestsellers, the guides eventually declined in popularity. Students went off to college, where some of them turned on their parents' generation and to drugs and new music. Physical education and swimming requirements gradually were abandoned in American colleges and universities while big-time athletic programs serving fewer undergraduates grew larger and professional sports assumed a greater public role in American life. The "counterculture" found fault with their elders for the tacit and overt support of racial discrimination in the United States, and of the war in Vietnam. Some turned their backs on sport and fitness as well, linking these activities with the older generation, conservatism, and the war.

The "counterculture" did not, however, simply drop acid, smoke grass, listen to music their parents hated, and oppose the war. The organic foods movement—now a vibrant and important part of the agricultural economy—has some of its strongest roots in the "sixties" generation. Many of these now middle-aged "baby boomers" have connected with physical fitness activities, whether to try to slow the effects of aging or because it makes them feel better. Their children and (increasingly) their grandchildren are in many cases dedicated to "working out" in ways and in frequency that make the manufacturers of home and institutional fitness machines sing with joy. College and university administrators who once thought a gymnasium, playing fields, and a pool were sufficient now find they must lure the young with "fitness centers" that resemble the spas and resorts of the wealthy more than they do the lockers, showers, and gymnasia of their youth.

In spite of this surge in health-related activities and the mushrooming sales of bottled drinking water, U.S. health and medical agencies point to a growing national health risk—obesity. The United States government's Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that since 1985 "there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. Today, 20 states have obesity prevalence rates of 15-19 percent; 29 states have rates of 20-24 percent; and one state reports a rate over 25 percent." Under the new definition of "overweight" that the Centers for Disease Control introduced in the mid-1990s, five states—Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Mississippi—counted 35-36% of their populations in that category. The rest of the states reported levels of overweight populations of at least 25% (Centers for Disease Control).

Part of the response to this national crisis in public health was the CDC's "Guidelines for School Health Programs to Promote Lifelong Healthy Eating." The initiative identified fat-laden foods in the marketplace, children and adults who are physically inactive, and less emphasis on the ordinary child in a school's physical education program as major causes of this problem. The CDC embarked on an ad campaign promoting healthy lifestyles for young people, and there are nationwide legislative efforts to attack the obesity and overweight problems, modeled after the antismoking campaigns of the 1960s. Following successful efforts in Arkansas and Texas, twenty-five states were considering restrictions on the sale of soda and candy in schools by the year 2000.

The U.S. government–recommended food "pyramid" stresses grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and minimal consumption of animal and hydrogenated fats. Ordinary folk wanting to have the muscular look of film stars and athletes feverishly work out and desperately try alternative diets that promise weight loss. Some take more dangerous routes, consuming drugs to curb their appetite. Anorexia and bulimia have become national plagues for women seeking to have slender fashion models' bodies. Three-hundred-and-fifty-pound linemen are no longer freaks in the National Football League; body builders have shown that they can add seemingly limitless muscle mass to their bodies. The use of anabolic steroids and other "enhancing" drugs is rampant as manufacturers and users race to keep ahead of detecting squads. The Internet is full of offers to lose weight, grow larger breasts, or increase penis size. None of this is particularly new. Similar advertisements and enticements graced the pages of health and fitness magazines throughout the twentieth century, albeit with more subtlety. New, unregulated electronic communications systems reveal both the pervasive nature of the business and the frailties of the vendors' customers.

The bright side of this situation is the growth of knowledge about a healthy lifestyle for those who wish it and the expansion of athletics for women that have occurred in the United States since the passage of Title IX of the National Defense Education Act. In spite of the protests of those who see athletics as a zero-sum game, women's sports will not go away. The message of more exercise and better foods may be spreading, however haltingly, through the American public.

See also: Aerobic Exercise, Bodybuilding, Horse Racing, Hunting, "Muscular Christianity" and the YM(W)CA Movements


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Harvey Green