Dr. James Naismith’s Life

Naismith Family Background

In the hard times of the 1820s, the government of Britain arranged for the settlement of its constituents in particular areas of Canada. Specifying that the emigrants pay their own ship passage, the British government agreed to provide tools, blankets, seed grain and small sums of money to tide the settlers over until harvest next fall.

James Naismith’s ancestors were among the multitudes of Scottish immigrants to settle in Lanark County, Ontario, near the junction of the Mississippi and Indian Rivers.

James’ grandparents, Robert and Annie Young, arrived in Canada in 1852. Annie reared eleven children. The fourth of these eleven children was Margaret Young, James’ mother, born in Scotland in 1833. A year after the Young’s arrived, eighteen year old John Naismith, James’ father, left his parents and migrated from Scotland to the Lanark District of Upper Canada. He soon moved to live and work with his Uncle Peter who had arrived in Ramsay Township in 1832.

Naismith’s Community

The community in which the Young farm was located was the most densely populated part of the township and was the place where the first schools and churches were built. The eighth line had two thriving settlements in the early days a few miles apart: Leckies Corners and Bennie’s Corners. In 1847 Bennie’s Corners (named for the pioneer postmaster in the village) had facilities more than adequate for its population of 75 people: a school, a church, a blacksmith shop, a shoemaker shop, a cooperage, a carriage shop, a general merchandise store and a post office. Within reasonable distance were a tannery, a carding mill, a weaving shop, a timber slide and sawmill, and several gristmills.

Unfortunately, a fire in 1851 destroyed the village of Bennie’s Corners and it was never fully rebuilt. Bennie’s Corners in the 1870s, the time of James Naismith’s adolescence, was no longer an important crossroad. It consisted of a few residences, a store, and a blacksmith shop and one very important institution -the schoolhouse. Here James received his grade school education.

With the decline of Bennie’s Corners from a thriving village to a minor cross-roads, the settlement now known as Almonte became the economic, social and cultural centre for the area. Named by the Scottish-Irish Canadian group of settlers to honour General Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, the Mexican ambassador to the United States in 1856, Almonte was one of the first villages in the Ottawa Valley. This textile-manufacturing centre of the country formed where the Mississippi River showed a sixty-two foot drop in three stages, making a tremendous supply of water available to generate power. This town is the town where James would attend high school and church.

James Naismith: The Early Years

Family

Early childhood photo of James Naismith and siblingsBorn near Almonte, Ontario on November 6, 1861, James was the eldest son of Scottish immigrants John and Margaret Naismith. In 1869, at the age of eight, James moved with his family to Grand Calumet where his father began work as a saw hand. He was orphaned at age nine, when his parents contracted typhoid fever while working in the milling community.

When their grandmother died in 1872 the Naismith children, Annie, James and Robbie, were left under the care of their authoritarian uncle, Peter Young.

School

James cut across the fields to attend grade school in a one-room schoolhouse in Bennie’s Corners. Jim was known in the neighborhood as a strong and skillful boy, but at school his monthly report cards showed poor grades. Mr. Thomas B. Caswell, James’ grade school teacher, instructed him in reading, writing, arithmetic, advanced mathematics, Latin grammar and other subjects. Although not the head of his class in academics, he was a leader among his peers in all physical activities and showed signs of becoming a fine athlete. James attended high school in a gray limestone building in Almonte.

Before and after school hours, Jim was assigned chores around the farm and worked in the woods. Jim learned to chop trees, saw logs, and drive horses. The walk from the farm to school was five miles.

Jim learned early many lessons in honesty, initiative, independence, and ruggedness. Uncle Peter put great stock in reliability and self-reliance. When Jim was sent into the field or the woods with a team of horses, he was expected to do the assigned job without asking for help. If trouble arose, he was depended upon to take care of it himself.

Play

Despite the burden of farm duties, there was time for play. In Bennie’s Corners the blacksmith shop was the gathering spot for the children of the area. Here they enjoyed watching the blacksmith work his materials and playing in the sugarbush behind the shop. Where a tree or boulder served as a convenient base, they played variations of tag and hide-and-seek or tried their skill at “duck on the rock” – a game which combined throwing with tag using a large base stone to be guarded by the one player.

In the fields, creeks and rivers beyond the blacksmith shop Jim and his friends found more space to play. With each season came a different opportunity for recreation.

In the fall, James was involved in hunting. In the surrounding forests the local boys hunted squirrels, partridge and snowshoe hare with bows and arrows. As they grew and matured they were given guns to hunt deer and Canadian lynx.

During the winter, snowshoeing, ice hockey, skating, and tobogganing were favorite activities. Not willing to ask his uncle for a pair of skates, James fashioned a pair for himself by setting metal files into pieces of wood.
In the spring, “sugaring-off” occurred in the Ontario maple groves. The making of maple sugar provided a fun time for Jim and his friends.

With summer came swimming. Jim used to lead boys across the fields and through the woods to favorite swimming spots in the Indian and Mississippi Rivers where they frolicked, swam and balanced on floating logs.

In all outdoor activities Jim was a leader. He was one of the strongest and most skilful boys in the neighborhood.

Duck on a Rock

A stone sat in the blacksmith’s yard adjacent to the Bennie’s Corners school in Ramsay Township where James attended. They played a game on this stone called “Duck on a Rock” which was a game that combined tag with throwing. Players formed a line from a distance of 15-20 feet from the base stone. Each player used a fist-sized stone. The object was to dislodge the “guards” stone from the top of the base stone, by throwing, taking turns. The guard would be positioned in a neutral area away from the thrower. If one succeeded, they would go to the back of the line. If you missed the guards’ stone, the “chase” would be on and if tagged before the stone was recovered, the players would trade places.

Over time, they discovered that if the stone was hurled like a baseball it would bound far away and increase the likelihood of being caught by the guard. The players developed a lobbed arcing shot that proved to be more controllable, more accurate, and less likely to bounce away, thus increasing their chance of retrieval. This game would prove useful to James in his creation of the game of basketball.

James Naismith: Athlete and Scholar

At McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Jim Naismith began a four year Bachelor of Arts program. Jim studied as he had never studied before. He made the decision to put sports aside and spend all his time on assignments. That was, until one day when two fellow students convinced him of the need to join the athletic program at the university for the sake of keeping fit.

Jim headed for McGill University’s gymnasium where he soon began participating in the gymnastic and rugby program. By his junior year, he was winning the university’s highest honours for his athletic involvement. Jim had time for extracurricular interests, joining the student government and Literary Society for which he debated. He was also a member of the Society choir.

In 1887, after four successful university years, he was cited on the Prize and Honour List for having passed the Bachelor of Arts in Honours in philosophy and Hebrew. He graduated as one of the top ten in his class on April 30, 1887.

After graduation Jim enrolled in the largest theological school affiliated with McGill University, the Presbyterian College. To finance his education he accepted an appointment as instructor of physical education in the gymnasium at McGill. As a student in a theological program, he studied hard and became involved in extracurricular religious activities. He was a member of staff of the Presbyterian College Journal, active in the Literary and Philosophical Society, and in the Missionary Society.

Although James won theological scholarships, he dismayed colleagues and professors by continuing his involvement in athletics. He played lacrosse – a sport occasionally referred to at the time as “legalized murder”, and rugby – a hard hitting sport, which some considered a tool of the devil. Jim was advised to leave the evils of the athletic life and devote himself to books and Christian duties. James’ views of athletics differed from those of his instructors. He continued his involvement with sports.

A New Path

During a rugby game in his senior year in seminary, a player on Jim’s team uttered some profanity, then apologized to Jim explaining “I forgot you were there”. These words changed the course of James’ life. From this remark he began to play with the idea of helping men through athletics and the ministry.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (founded in London nearly a half century before) had been established in Boston and Montreal in 1851. Jim often visited the YMCA in Montreal and had become acquainted with the general secretary D.A. Budge. Jim explained to Budge his idea of helping young athletes. It was through Budge that Naismith learned of the Y.M.C.A International Training School in Massachusetts for the education of laymen-leaders of youth. Shortly thereafter, Jim left the Presbyterian College as an non-ordained minister to pursue a career with an emphasis on physical education.

In the late summer of 1890, after spending some time learning about the YMCAs in Canada and the U.S., Jim bid farewell to Bennie’s Corners and Almonte and traveled to Springfield to enroll at the YMCA Training school. Here he would take courses that emphasized spiritual and physical development.

The Years at the “Y”

While at the YMCA training school, James took and taught various courses, and played rugby for the YMCA.

At this stage in its development, indoor physical education in the U.S. consisted of calisthenics, gymnastics, and drills. The late 1870’s and 80’s saw a rise in interest in outdoor intercollegiate sports, especially track and field and football, and participation in these games at the YMCA increased. But between the close of the football season in the fall and the opening of the baseball season in the spring there was emptiness.

Recognizing the danger of overemphasis on exercises that demanded excessive routine and wanting to bring recreational sports into the gymnasium the superintendent, Luther Gulick, assigned James and the other students the task of inventing new games.

The needs to revamp the indoor physical education program grew quickly, as one group of students, primarily mature men, were losing interest in the existing program. After two instructors of this group of students asked for relief from instructing this class, Gulick assigned Naismith as the instructor, asking him to see what he could do with the class and the program.

A New Game

James Naismith with a basketballWhile working for the YMCA, James was given the task of introducing a new indoor game in 1891, with two main objectives – “make it fair for all players, and free of rough play”.

Naismith turned to the childhood games of “Duck on a Rock” as he developed this new game, which would come to be known as basketball.

Read more about how he developed the game and read the original rules here.

James Naismith: Career and Later Life

James Naismith during World War I in EuropeNaismith embarked on a career in Physical Education through the YMCA and took time out to earn his Medical Degree while operating the Denver YMCA. This led him to accept the positions of Physical Education Director, Campus Chaplain and Basketball Coach at the University of Kansas. He remained there from 1898 until his retirement in 1938.

In between, he served twice in military conflict, including WWI in France, and saw his gift of basketball admitted into the Olympic Family of sports at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. To see the youth of the world united to play his game, his gift to mankind, basketball. It remained the highlight of his career according to Naismith.

James Naismith succumbed to heart trouble on November 29th, 1939. His legacy is reflected in the games played around the world, the basketball nets that adorn garages, walls and barns in communities’ abroad. And finally, in schools and YMCA’s around the world, the first game requiring a high ceiling space for a gymnasium.