Dr James Naismith—moralist, doctor, teacher, inventor

Who is Dr Naismith and what has he in common with Kobe Bryant, Sue Bird, Magic Johnson, Diana Taurasi, Steve Nash, and Maya Moore? These men and women are some of the best basketball players in the sport’s history, and Dr Naismith was the inventor of the game of “basket ball” 130 years ago, in 1891.

Naismith was Canadian by birth, the oldest son of Scottish immigrants living near Almonte, Ontario. His parents died of typhoid fever when he was 9 years old. He was raised by his uncle, who insisted on reliability and self-reliance. He walked 5 miles to attend grade school in a one-room schoolhouse. He excelled in athletics, but his marks were poor. He dropped out of school at age 15 to work in logging camps. At age 20 he returned to school, and in 1887 he earned degrees in religion and physical education at McGill University. In 1890 he moved to Springfield, Mass, where he became a physical education teacher at the International YMCA Training School.

In the winter of 1891 he was asked to devise an indoor game to help keep students physically active while waiting for the football, track, and baseball seasons. Naismith remembered a childhood game—duck on a rock—where the duck was a small rock placed on a stump and kids playing tag had to throw a small stone to knock the duck off its perch. In an elaboration on this tag and marksmanship game, he had a basket mounted 10 feet off the floor so no one could block the target. Players had to gain possession of a ball and lob it into the basket. At first there was too much pushing and grabbing and fighting for the ball, and someone had to climb up to retrieve the ball from the basket. Naismith altered the game, set up two teams, installed a bottomless basket at each end, and laid out 13 rules, including no running with the ball.

“Basket ball” became an instant hit in the US and Canada, and spread to other countries quickly. The men’s sport was officially added to the Olympic Games as “basketball” at the 1936 games in Berlin. Women’s basketball became an Olympic event in Montreal during the 1975 Summer Olympics.

In 1895 Naismith moved from Springfield to Denver to become head of physical education at the YMCA and to attend Gross Medical School. He never practised clinical medicine, but his interest was focused on sport’s contribution to a healthy body and soul. As campus physician and head of the Athletics Department at the University of Kansas, he conducted physical exams and maintained medical records for male undergraduates. He taught preventive medicine and sex education—the latter primarily focused on morality. He established a student health service. In 1917, then age 55, he joined the American Forces in Europe as lecturer to the troops on moral conditions and sex education (prevention of venereal diseases), and to promote basketball tournaments. 

Dr Naismith’s wife of 43 years died in 1937. They had five children. In 1939 the doctor remarried, but 4 months later he suffered a stroke and died at age 78.

As a Christian moralist and a doctor he believed that athletics could lead people toward spiritual and physical well-being. His legacy: today all over the world some 400 million boys and girls, men and women play basketball.
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
Cantwell JD. The physician who invented basketball. Am J Cardiol 2004;93:1075-1077.
Burden G. The birth of a new sport. Life as a human. Accessed 22 January 2021. http://lifeasahuman.com/2015/healh-fitness/the-birth-of-a-new-sport.
New World Encyclopedia. James A. Naismith. Accessed 22 January 2021. www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/James_A._Naismith.
Your dictionary. James Naismith. Accessed 22 January 2021.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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