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Lucy Osband -- the Forgotten Lady

Lucy Osband -- the Forgotten Lady image Lucy Osband -- the Forgotten Lady image Lucy Osband -- the Forgotten Lady image Lucy Osband -- the Forgotten Lady image
Erik J. Pedersen
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

By Dr. Erik J. Pedersen

While doing research for this article I was impressed and amazed with how much influence certain individuals can have on a community. Just as amazing is how quickly we can forget about these individuals and their contributions with the passing of time. William and Lucy Osband were two people who had a significant impact on the Ypsilanti community during the late 1800's. One written account, found in the Ypsilanti Historical Society Archives, referred to the Osbands as”…two citizens who influenced the life of this part of the country for half a century.”

“Her primary motivation came from the conviction that physical exercise was important to the health and welfare of the students she cared so much about.”

William and Lucy Osband were involved in many community activities. William, in particular, was a member of several civic organizations and was often elected to leadership positions in those groups. Lucy was an early member of the Ladies Literary Club and twice served as the organization's president. However, the primary reason this couple had such an influence on the Ypsilanti community was the fact that William was the editor and proprietor of The Ypsilantian, the local paper. Archival resources referred to The Ypsilantian as a paper of “high literary quality and that the articles reflected a wide range of interests” (Ypsilanti Archives). Another source indicated that it was “outspoken and fearless.” The Ypsilantian was considered as lively reading, and people of the community regarded it as their own.

Lucy Osband wrote most of the editorials. She also wrote a column called “Ypsi Dixits.” Lucy had a keen sense of humor and the “Ypsi Dixits” gave her an opportunity to express her insight and knowledge on a variety of topics. (Ypsilanti Archives) To reflect on all of the accomplishments and contributions this couple gave to the City of Ypsilanti would require more space than could be provided in this article. Since my initial interest in doing this research was centered on Lucy Osband, this article will focus on her career as a professor at the Michigan State Normal School and the influence she had in starting the Physical Education Department.


Wilber Bowen, Lloyd Olds, Fanny Cheever Burton, Ruth Boughner, and Augusta Harris are names from the past that are frequently mentioned when referring to the history of the Physical Education Department at Eastern Michigan University. All of these persons were important and all deserve recognition. However, one name that frequently appears in archival records has received virtually no recognition. This person arrived on the Michigan State Normal College Campus in the 1880's and promoted “Physical Culture” before anyone else. Without her influence, Wilber Bowen would very likely have remained in the Normal College Math Department, the Physical Education facility completed in 1894 would never have been built, and the Physical Culture Department established in 1894 would never have been realized.

Why haven't the contributions of such an influential and dynamic individual been recognized? Why has the name of Lucy Aldrich Osband all but remained anonymous whenever the history of Physical Education at the Michigan State Normal School been discussed? The purpose of this article is to recognize this “Forgotten Lady” and highlight her role in the establishment of one of the nation's first Physical Education preparation programs.

Lucy Osband.

Lucy Aldrich was born in a log farmhouse in Arcadia, New York. She came from a strong Quaker and Puritan family background. Very early in her childhood. Throughout her life she was weak and frail. Several times during her teaching career, she needed to take long leaves of absence to recover from the stress related to her teaching responsibilities. Because of ill-health, Lucy was not always able to attend school. Consequently, her parents, who were both teachers, supervised most of her education at home. They insisted on good study habits and expected Lucy to recite every lesson perfectly. Lucy later attributed her conviction for thorough and accurate work to her parents.

Despite poor health and a home education, Lucy Aldrich became an outstanding teacher and scholar. During her teaching career, she taught courses in calculus, analytical geometry, literature, modern language, botany, physiology, and “Swedish Drill.” Her college studies and professional background were primarily in the natural sciences. Botany was her major area of interest. She eventually became head of the Natural Science Department at Michigan State Normal College. It is unusual and remarkable that someone with such serious health problems and extensive academic background would support and promote physical activity.

At the age of sixteen, Lucy Aldrich entered the Newark Union School. She was the only girl in a class of thirteen. Because Lucy was a girl, there was no guarantee that employment would be available upon graduation. However, the quality of her academic efforts was recognized and at the age of nineteen she was able to obtain a teaching position at Phelps High School in New York. Within a year she was appointed Preceptress of Walworth Academy. Miss Aldrich remained in this position for two years. Soon the efforts of teaching once again affected her health. She needed a better climate to ease her lung problems. In a letter to Fredrich B. McKay, a member of the Eastern Michigan College Faculty, Lucy Osband's daughter indicated that her mother suffered from “incipient T.B.” at that time in her life. (M. Osband 1944).

Lucy Aldrich became principal of the Sylavan Villa Seminary, a young ladies school in Standardsville, Virginia. Judging from several historical accounts, it was during this period of her life that Lucy Aldrich was introduced to outdoor activities and the benefits of physical exercise. One account indicated that”…Here she learned the lessons taught by the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and often joined parties of excursionists to the natural places of the state. Altogether it was an out-of-door life for the mind as well as the body.” (Aurora, 1894, p26).

After two years in Virginia, Lucy Aldrich returned to New York and entered Genesee College in Lima, New York. Genesee was only the second college in the country which did not discriminate against women in its admission requirements. Lucy did so well in her studies that she earned the distinction of being class valedictorian. In the same graduating class was William M. Osband whom Lucy married two months after graduation.

The Move to Michigan

After graduation and their marriage, William and Lucy Osband taught at the Gouverneuer Wesleyan Seminary in New York. In 1864 and 1865, they both accepted positions at Albert University in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. They arrived in Michigan when William became the principal of Northville Union School. After three years, they purchased a home in Ypsilanti. The birth of their only child, Marna and homemaking duties kept Lucy temporarily out of the classroom. However, when William accepted a position at Oliver College, Lucy was coerced into teaching Greek. Within one year, Albion College offered both William and Lucy department head positions. He took over the Natural Science Department and she became head of the Modern Language Department. Lucy also served as the university Preceptress. After six years at Albion, William and Lucy returned to their home in Ypsilanti.

Women's Physiology Class in the Old Main Building — 1880s.

Lucy Osband's interest in the natural sciences increased when she taught in Virginia. Her travels in the south and east familiarized her with the plants from those regions. Marine Life also fascinated her. With these interests and background, she became an instructor in the Natural Science Department at Michigan State Normal College in 1883. When a chairmanship in that department was established in 1884, she was hired to fill it. The accomplishments of Lucy Osband in the Natural Sciences are too numerous to describe in this article. Attention will focus instead on an area for which she also accomplished a great deal and received very little recognition — Physical Education.

Lucy's Interest in Physical Culture

Immediately upon arriving at the Normal School, Lucy Osband started teaching classes in “Swedish Work.” These classes were taught in addition to her responsibilities in the Natural Science Department. She received no extra pay for teaching “Swedish Work,” only the satisfaction of knowing that exercise was contributing to the health and welfare of the students. Lucy would take her physiology classes into the University Chapel, stand students in the aisles, and lead them in “Swedish Routine Movements” with dumbbells and Indian Clubs. (M. Osband 1944). Eventually she was give a basement room in the Old Main building, where her program included military marching, wands, pulley weights, and “Swedish Apparatus.” The former campus gymnasium had burned down in 1873 so there wasn't an appropriate place to hold Physical Culture classes. Lucy Osband would eventually change that.

The two photographs shown were probably taken from the new Physiology and Hygiene Course developed by Lucy Osband in 1886–1887. The new course included “practical work” in the application of the physiological laws of gymnastics. These sessions were held on a weekly basis in the basement of the Old Main Building.

1894 — Gymnasium.

Lucy Osband persuaded many others to join her physical culture classes. Normal School instructors from other disciplines were “fair game.” Two of her recruits, Wilber Bowen and Carolyn Crawford, made significant contributions to the field of Physical Education. Wilber Bowen was an instructor in the Normal College Math Department. Lucy convinced him that physical education was a growing discipline and that he should consider pursuing a career in that area. He agreed! While teaching math, he studied physiology at the University of Michigan. He also began teaching physical culture classes at the Normal School in 1888. Bowen eventually became the first Physical Culture Department Chairman. Bowen wrote eleven books and published many research articles. He was recognized as a leader in the field for over forty years and is referred to as the “Father of Physical Education in the State of Michigan.”

Lucy Osband's daughter Marna, recalls”…at the Normal School, besides building up the Natural Science Department, her mother established out of her physiology classes, the Department of Physical Education.” (M. Osband 1944). Lloyd Olds, in an article titled “A Brief History of the Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Athletic Department” noted that Lucy Osband “arranged for additional classes on the theory and practice of Physical Culture.” (Olds N-D). This course was first offered at the Normal School in 1888 and was one of the first teacher training courses in Physical Culture at any college or university in the country.

The New Gymnasium

One achievement for which Lucy Osband received some recognition was the construction of a new physical education facility which was completed in 1894. “How a Wily Woman Got a Gym for E.M.U.” is how Ralph Chapman described Lucy Osband's approach for obtaining funds to build a new physical education facility. (Chapman 1977). Lucy's approach provides an interesting and insightful story.

The Normal College had been without a “Physical Culture” facility since the first gymnasium was destroyed by fire in 1873. Due to the lack of a Physical Education facility, Wilber Bowen left the Normal College in 1891 to teach at the University of Nebraska. Lucy Osband convinced Professor Sill, Normal School Principal, that a new gymnasium was necessary. However, convincing the State Board of Education was another matter. The State Board, in the early 1890's, did not think favorably about “Physical Culture.” The timing and approach for requesting funds had to be just right!

The opportunity for a formal appeal presented itself during a visit to the Normal College by the State Board of Education. Professor Sill appointed two professors to speak on behalf of the building. “Mrs. Osband knew enough about legislators to know that speeches would have no effect. So she prepared a dozen exceptionally skilled girls to put on a sample of what the actual class work was.” (M. Osband 1994). However, Professor Sill refused to allow the girls to perform. He did not like anything unusual and felt too much confusion would result in clearing the stage. Another Normal School professor trained some boys to clear the stage in just two minutes. Principal Sill still refused. “Then for one of the few times in her life, Mrs. Osband resorted to a ‘woman's weapon,’ she cried. Sill relented.” (M. Osband 1944).

As was expected, the speeches proved to be ineffective. Members of the state legislature told how they got exercise by cutting wood. “The affair fell flat until a dozen pretty girls, graded as to height, came on stage. At their superb military marching, the legislators pricked up their ears and showed interest. The Indian club drill had them stirred and the dumbbell drill made them enthusiastic. “Later Principal Sill and the State Board president came to Mrs. Osband and “told her that her girls had almost surely won the building.” (M. Osband 1944). They were right-$20,000 was appropriated by the state legislature, and the citizens of Ypsilanti donated a building site on West Cross Street. The new gymnasium was dedicated on May 18, 1894. It served the university for 71 years until the Joseph E. Warner Gymnasium was completed in 1965.

Once funds for the building had been obtained, plans for the building needed to be developed. Lucy Osband contacted Dr. Dudley Sargent at Harvard University and Dr. Luther Gulick at Springfield College. They provided many ideas for the building. Gulick even sent detailed plans of the building he designed for Springfield College. Lucy Osband indicated that many of Gulick's suggestions”…were used in the planning of our building.” (M. Osband 1944).

It was still to be decided who would head the new Department of Physical Culture. Lucy Osband recommended to Professor Sill that Wilber Bowen be appointed to lead the new department. She also recommended that Carolyn Crawford, who studied under Luther Gulick, be his assistant and direct the Women's Program. Bowen was recruited back from Nebraska. However, Fanny Cheever Burton was hired to head the Women's Program.


From every account and description Lucy Osband was an outstanding teacher. Consequently, it would be appropriate in closing to share with you a portion of Lucy Osband's philosophy on preparing teachers. This passage is taken from a presentation she made at a Michigan State Teachers Conference on December 27, 1877. The title of her address was “The Relation of our Teachers to the Moral and Religious Culture of the Future.” The essence of this message is just as appropriate today as it was over 100 years ago.

1894 — Inside Gymnasium.

“History is a record of struggle, but the moral sense of mankind discriminates between those who strive for their own salvation and those who labor for the welfare of others. From the outset then, we shall consider the teachers words not so much with reference to the present as to the future; not as an end, but as a means to the end. The need of the times is not for qualified instructors only; we want men and women of honest purpose, of strong moral fiber, and unyielding principles, of cultured brain and ardent soul.”

Lucy Osband was Chairman of the Physical Science Department from 1884 until her retirement in 1895. This was her primary responsibility and she made many significant contributions to that department and the field of botany. However, she also taught classes in “Swedish Work,” trained and recruited teachers in “Physical Culture,” developed professional courses, obtained funds for a new gymnasium, and helped recruit faculty to head a new department. She did it all without extra pay, released time or recognition. Her primary motivation came from the conviction that physical exercise was important to the health and welfare of the students she cared so much about. She was truly an amazing woman!

Despite having physical problems most of her life, Lucy Osband lived to be 76 years old. She was a strong advocate of physical exercise and the benefits she obtained from being physically active probably added years and quality to her life. Selected passages from her memorial reflect her struggles with poor health and the impressions she made in spite of those problems:

• “Hampered by frail health, she was a wonderful example of the triumph of intellect and spirit over physical conditions.”

• “The range of her knowledge was marvelous, and her memory was equally so. She never seemed to anyone to be old, she was so alive to all progress in every line of endeavor and her spirit was so young.”

One of the purest, loveliest of souls refined by years of worry and pain and in life a source of inspiration and helpful living to thousands of men and women in all parts of the world.” (The Ypsilantian, p.9)

The Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance at Eastern Michigan University celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 1994. Much of what was celebrated would never have been realized without the efforts of a “Forgotten Lady,”-a lady whose efforts no longer remain anonymous.


Chapman, R., How A Willy Women Got A Gym for EMU, Ypsilanti, Michigan, Information Services, 1977

IsBell, E.R., A History of Eastern Michigan University 1849–1965. Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University Press, 1971.

Johnson, J., A History of the Professional Training Curriculum in Physical Education for Men at Michigan State Normal College, Ypsilanti, Michigan, Masters Thesis, Eastern Michigan University (University Archives) 1952.

Kent, C., Wilber Who? MAHPERD Journal, Fall 1982.

Michigan State Normal College Yearbook (1895–96), Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Courier Printing House, 1896.

Olds, L., A Brief History of the Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics Department, Unpublished paper, m.d. Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University (University Archives)

Osband, M., The Beginning of Physical Training in the Michigan State Normal College, Letter to Fredrich McKay, September 14, 1944. Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University (University Archives)

Norton, A., Luch A. Osband, M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan, AURORA 1894, pp. 25–29.

Putnam, D., History of the Normal College 1849–1890, Ypsilanti, Michigan, The Scharf Tag, and Box Co., 1899.

The Normal News, Mrs. Lucy A. Osband, Biographical Dates, (V.12: No. 17, May 12, 1893, Ypsilanti, Michigan, pp. 266–267) Eastern Michigan University (University Archives)

Ypsilanti Historical Society Archives, Marna Osband File, Ypsilanti, Michigan.