Joseph H. Pilates was born on December 8, 1880 not far from Dusseldorf.
Pilates traveled to England in 1912. After WWI broke out in 1914, he
was interned along with other German nationals in a camp for enemy
aliens in Lancaster, England. There, he taught wrestling and self-defense,
motivating others to follow his fitness program and boasting that his
students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment.
It was here that he began devising his system of original exercises
that he later called "Contrology." Taking springs from
beds and rigging up exercise apparatuses for the bedridden, he devised
his earliest rehabilitation equipment.
After the war, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany and worked with
the Hamburg Military Police, training them in self-defense and physical
conditioning. He also began taking on personal clients during this
time. In 1925, Pilates decided to emigrate to America because he
didn't like the direction Germany was heading in politically. En
route, Pilates met a young nurse named Clara. She became his wife
and shortly thereafter, an integral partner in helping develop and
teach his method.
By the early 1930's, Pilates and Clara opened their gym in the same
building where several dance schools and rehearsal spaces were located.
News of Pilates’ skill at working with injuries spread by word
of mouth and Pilates' client base grew rapidly. His clientele was
diverse: It included people in New York City's high society, such
as members of the Gimbel and Guggenheim families; along with movie
stars Vivien Leigh, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn and
others. He also worked with doctors, circus performers, gymnasts,
musicians, dancers, business people, tradesmen and students.
The 30's and 40's were the early years of American ballet and modern
dance. Many luminaries such as George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, Ruth
St. Dennis, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, plus many other lesser-known
dancers studied with and sent injured dancers to "Uncle Joe," to
be "fixed." "Contrology" became an intrinsic
part of many dancers' training and rehabilitation.