Sandow, Eugen (1867-1925)

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Sandow, Eugen (1867-1925)

Although a native of Koenigsberg, Germany, Eugen Sandow left an indelible mark on American life. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Muller, on April 2, 1867, he became one of the most popular and influential men of his age throughout the world through his activities that gave rise to the modern conceptualization of what we now term bodybuilding. Sandow traveled Europe as an acrobat, artist's model, and wrestler, before achieving prominence in England as a strongman/physique artist in the latter stages of the nineteenth century.

While Eugen Sandow's stage act consisted of the standard weightlifting feats of the era's strongmen, he achieved his greatest recognition for artistic physique posing, in which he displayed hitherto unseen muscular definition and vascularity. In contrast to the barrel-chested and pot-bellied weightlifters of the age, he popularized a new physical ideal that captured the imagination of turn-of-the-century men and women. Appearing on stage in nothing but a pair of briefs or, posing for physique photographs clad only in a fig leaf, Sandow offered an aesthetically appealing, scantily-clad, sexualized physique which challenged the repressive conventions of the late Victorian age.

A leading figure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century "Physical Culture" movement, Sandow became one of the most recognized and influential men of his generation. Far from being merely a strongman, or what later generations would term a sex symbol, he branched out into lecturing and publishing, penning five full-length books and innumerable pamphlets and brochures, and editing a physical culture publication, Sandow's Magazine, from 1898 to 1907. While not regarded as a leading academic in any sense, his theories were considered scientific and he was respected for his practical knowledge of physiology and medicine.

Sandow's interplay with the scientific and medical authorities extended throughout his professional career. His system of weightlifting and physical fitness was endorsed by a great number of physicians, including blood pressure diagnostics pioneer, Sir Lauder Brunton. In December 1892, Sandow's exhibition before Army cadets was the subject of an article in the medical journal The Lancet. He was examined by Harvard professor and medical doctor Dudley Sargent, considered the "dean of American physical educators," and was judged to be "the most perfectly developed man in the world." Sargent then invited Sandow to lecture the students at Harvard, an offer that the strongman took up in 1902. He was also selected by the British Museum to represent the "Caucasian race" in the natural history branch's "Races of the World" exhibit. His crowning achievement in the field of medico-bodybuilding, however, came when he was named "Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture" to King George V in 1911.

While cementing his reputation as a scientistic, if not scientific, entity, Sandow also advanced his career as a popular cultural icon. Having achieved widespread acclaim as a stage star touring the United States with impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., he was invited by Thomas Edison to star in one of the inventor's Kinetoscope films. On March 10, 1894, Sandow waived his $250 appearance fee to shake the hand of Thomas Edison—who he considered "the greatest man of the age"—and to become the star of one of the first moving pictures. He later went on to star in "big screen" shorts produced by Edison's rival, the American Mutoscope and Biograph studios.

Along with his on-screen exploits, Sandow continued to travel as a stage performer. He incorporated a glass-case posing routine into his act, whereby he would occupy a glass enclosure with a rotating pedestal, which allowed the audience a voyeuristic total view of the bodybuilder's physique. After touring Europe, the British Isles, and the United States, where he was a star attraction at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Sandow set out to take his brand of physical culture and his trademark physique to the rest of the world. In 1902, he toured Australia and New Zealand, preaching his sermon on bodybuilding, and embarked upon a grand tour of South Africa, India, China, Japan, Java, and Burma in 1904. He brought along an entire troupe of performing athletes, and a tent which could comfortably accommodate six thousand people for his exhibitions in areas lacking appropriate theatrical facilities.

While Sandow is noted for his own stage performances, he also organized the first major bodybuilding competition, the so-called "Great Competition" of 1901, in Great Britain. Gathering together the foremost British physique artists, he hosted a pageant where, together with sculptor Charles Lawes and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he set about determining exactly who was the most perfectly developed man in the British Isles. Before a capacity crowd of 15,000 spectators, Sandow put forth an exhibition the likes of which had never been seen. After a parade of athletes, marching to a musical composition written by Sandow, a performance by a boys' choir, wrestling, gymnastics, fencing, exercise displays, and an exhibition by the premier bodybuilder himself, bronze, silver, and gold statuettes of Sandow were given to those judged to have the three best physiques.

Though age began to take its toll on the athlete's musculature, Eugen Sandow was a very popular figure well into the twentieth century. His likeness was used to sell numerous products from exercisers and dime novels to cocoa and cigars, and he remained active in his adopted homeland of Great Britain through publishing and public speaking. While preparing for a lecture tour of Britain in 1925, he fell ill and was forced to cancel his plans. Hazy details surround his ailment, and when he died at the age of 58 on October 14, 1925, newspaper accounts stated that he suffered a burst blood vessel in his brain after attempting to single-handedly pull an automobile out of a ditch. The story was questioned at the time and is still in question today. Sandow's biographer, David Chapman, speculates that the strongman's death may have been the result of an aortic aneurysm brought about by syphilis.

—Nicholas Turse

Further Reading:

Budd, Michael A. The Sculpture Machine: Physical Culture and Body Politics in the Age of Empire. New York, New York University Press, 1997.

Chapman, David. Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. Chicago, University of Illinois, 1994.

Dutton, Kenneth. The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Male Physical Development. New York, Continuum, 1995.

Green, Harvey. Fit for America: Health, Fitness, Sport and American Society. New York, Pantheon, 1986.