Awesome Men Throughout History: Bernarr MacFadden


Some of TSB’s readers might think that current organic/gluten-free/juicing/etc. health fads are a modern thing brought on by fretful yuppies with too much disposable income. That’s only half-true, though; weird health and fitness trends have been a part of American culture for centuries, and sometimes the men behind them accidentally do some good.

One of those men is this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History, Bernarr MacFadden.

mac1MacFadden was an eccentric health nut in the vein of Charles Atlas and Jack Lalanne, and ran MacFadden publications, which published scandalous pulp magazines, a sleazy newspaper called The New York Graphic, and his own magazine, Physical Culture, which concerned itself with bodybuilding tips and health remedies.

MacFadden was a sickly child whose parents both died from consumption, but he was spared their fate when he was shipped off to work on a farm in rural Illinois. Farm work turned his health around and gave him a purpose in life, and soon he was lifting weights regularly and becoming super weird about it.

He became a personal trainer (which he called a “kinistherapist”) who clanged out books on health and nutrition with exhausting frequency; they proved to be the foundation for his publishing empire. He was a big proponent of fasting for health reasons, and also for pride, and he hated—hated—white bread, reviling it as one of the six pillars of American sickness.

The other five were corsets, doctors, vaccination, overeating and prudery. He and Jenny McCarthy would have a lot to talk about.

Like many highly ambitious men with goofy ideas, MacFadden found trouble and criticism wherever he went. The proto-pin-up pictures he published in Physical Culture got him in trouble with anti-pornography activist Anthony Comstock. An article he wrote about syphilis cost him $2,000 in legal fees, and President Taft had to pardon him to keep him out of jail.

He also tried to start his own religion, “Cosmotarianism,” based on his less credible fitness theories, like his belief that not wearing shoes encouraged physical contact with the earth’s magnetic currents and enhanced sexual prowess. He also challenged total strangers to fights often enough that it came up more than once in my research about him, although I don’t know if that was one of the core tenets of Cosmotarianism.

Either way, it still makes more sense than Scientology does.

Bernarr MacFadden died in 1955, but many of his health theories (anti-bread hysteria, for example) still exist today, and he did get the country interested in health and fitness. He was like the Sigmund Freud of working out, I guess.

And for the record, he was right about prudery. Our Puritanical habits are tearing this country apart.

About Dave Kiefaber

Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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