Author’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series on bodybuilder and health advocate Bernarr Macfadden. Look for part II on our blog next Tuesday, Aug. 29.
If you’re currently fasting or abstaining from eating white bread and flour, you have Bernarr Macfadden to thank for the inspiration. Crowned the ‘father of modern physique culture,’ Macfadden’s name is likely one you haven’t heard, but chances are, you’ve been influenced by him in one way or another and don’t even know it.
Macfadden was a lifelong proponent of physical fitness, as well as a publisher whose empire made him a millionaire. Like Bob Mizer, as a publisher, he was the target of smear campaigns designed to taint his reputation forever. And, also like Mizer, Macfadden weathered legal tribulations to emerge as a well-respected voice in the fight for good health and clean living.
From death’s door to a living miracle
The man who would become the face of robust health itself was born on Aug. 16, 1868, in Mill Spring, Mo. A sickly child from the very start, young Bernard nearly died at age 7 when a doctor vaccinated him using a “medically unsound method,” according to author and artist Jim Bennett. That medical misstep would instill in Bernard a lifelong distrust of doctors.
The boy’s parents died when he was only 11, and Bernard’s mother, herself frequently ill, was the partial impetus for his love affair with physical culture. He was determined not to end up like his mother and, shortly after his parents’ death, he went to work for a farmer, performing manual labor. It was an invigorating experience for the young boy, who learned quickly that he preferred the fresh air and working outdoors to the ‘stifling’ experience of indoor work.
Bernard began adjusting his diet and exercise habits accordingly, purchasing a dumbbell set and taking regular, long walks. Still a slight 5’6” and 145 lbs., Bernard quickly amassed upper body strength. With that development of physical strength came a change in attitude, too – those who knew sickly, meek Bernard as a child were stunned to see him blossom into an assertive, ambitious, take-charge teenager who now was seen working out frequently in St. Louis-area gymnasiums.
‘Weakness is a crime’
At the age of 19, the industrious Bernard opened his first studio, promoting it with the tagline, “Weakness is a crime; don’t be a criminal.” Over the course of the next few years, Bernard moved to Illinois, finding work as an athletic trainer, wrestling and football coach, and boxing promoter. He even attended the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he marveled at a performance by world-renowned strongman Eugene Sandow.
But the young man yearned for more, and the bustling city life of New York City soon beckoned to him. He moved there in 1894 with a mere $50 in his pocket and big dreams of becoming a global personality in the world of bodybuilding and health.
To do so, however, young Bernard would need a larger-than-life identity that would draw customers and audiences. He changed his name to ‘Bernarr,’ likening the sound of the name to a lion’s roar. He changed the spelling of his last name to ‘Macfadden,’ as he believed that spelling appeared more masculine.
The next few years would see the new Bernarr Macfadden explode onto the physical culture scene with a ferocity, a cult of personality that was unmatched by even Sandow himself. The once-sickly young boy had grown into a self-assured, astounding physical specimen – a living, breathing example of the transformative power of motivation, fiercely hard work, and rigorous self-discipline.