George Barker Windship, MD

by Dennis Mitchell

One of the very few pictures of George Barker Windship, MD (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

George Barker Windship was born in 1834 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and entered Harvard University at age 16. He stood five feet tall and weighed one hundred pounds. Because of his small size he was constantly teased and tormented by his classmates. He started practicing gymnastics at the Harvard gym in an effort to build himself up. He spent some time every evening after classes at the gym doing chins, dips, and working on the rings and various bars. By the time he graduated he was well known for his strength. He could chin twelve times with one arm, and do a one arm chin with either arm using just his little finger.

On a trip to Rochester New York, he saw a lifting machine and lifted 420 pounds in what was similar to a Hand and Thigh Lift. After returning home he made his own hand and thigh apparatus, lifting a barrel that he would fill with rocks and sand. He became a dedicated weight lifter.

He returned to Harvard University and following in his father’s, grandfather’s, and great grandfather’s foot steps entered medical school. However, he stated that his main reason for medical school was to learn about the human body in order to improve his lifting.

He graduated in 1857, and had increased his Hand and Thigh Lift to 1208 pounds. He also fashioned a yoke type apparatus similar to the Harness Lift and could lift 2200 pounds. At this time he also added dumbbells to his training and in time could press a pair of 100 pound dumbbells. He also added barbell lifting with a globe barbell that he could vary the weight from 141 pounds to 180 pounds by adding shot to the globes. He was never a very big man reaching the height of 5’7″ and weighing 147 pounds.

This is a lifting apparatus designed and built by George Barker Windship, MD. It was patented in 1893, and is a forerunner of the Universal Machine.

Dr. Windship had his gym next to his medical office, and would tell his clients that if they would spend more time in his gym they would spend less time in his medical office. Dr. Dudley Sargent, the head of the Harvard Physical Education Department, after watching Dr. Windship work out, stated that, “he was exceeding strong and that he used very heavy weights in a number of different movements and angles with both weights and on machines that he invented”.

Dr. Windship gave many lectures on the health benefits that would come from being strong, and would end his lectures with a demonstration of his strength. He preached that heavy lifting was a form of medical therapy.

He had patents on various equipment. He made a dumbbell that could be adjusted in half pound increments from eight pounds to one hundred and one pounds. He invented the forerunner of the Universal Machine, and invented a leg and hip machine. his training methods were quite modern and he stressed very heavy short workouts with ample rest between training sessions. One of his patents in 1870 was for a machine that used compressed air in a piston for resistance in a rowing machine and a cable apparatus used for working the chest.

On September 12th, 1876, at the age of just 42, Dr. Windship died of a massive stroke. There were those who were against heavy lifting stating that it was dangerous, and used Dr. Windship’s death as proof. It did have a negative affect on lifting and for some years lifting was looked on as being dangerous.