Waterloo mourns the passing of Kinesiology visionary Norman Ashton

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Norman Jesse Ashton

It is with sadness that the University of Waterloo announces the passing of Norman J. Ashton, a pioneer of what is now the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, and in most eyes the founder of kinesiology as a field of study. Ashton died Tuesday, January 19, 2010, aged 83.

“Norm’s example has influenced several generations of leadership in kinesiology,” says Jim Rush, who now chairs the kin department that Ashton headed from its beginning in 1967.

Norm Ashton (left) earned a bachelor’s degree at McGill University and a master’s at Michigan, then spent several years as a fitness specialist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was the key creator of the 5BX and XBX exercise programs, for men and women respectively, which spread beyond the military to become the leading fitness programs in Canada in the 1960s.

He was enticed to Waterloo in 1965 as part of an expansion of what was then called the School of Physical and Health Education. Soon, he had launched a program with the unfamiliar title of “kinesiology”. Bob Norman, now retired from the kin department (after also serving as dean of AHS in the 1990s), recalls that “Norm made a huge contribution to the conceptualization and actualization of the notion of kinesiology, the science of human motion in all of its forms and all of its dimensions, from cell to society, as he liked to say.

“The types of human movement worthy of study in his notion included sport, work, recreation, physical fitness, rehabilitation medicine, injury prevention in all activities, motion and training in space, day to day movement, aging, the military and on and on. Norm’s conceptualization of kinesiology as a discipline led to his successful proposal to the Senate of the University of Waterloo for a Department of Kinesiology, rather than proposing yet another department of physical education which was a profession, not a discipline, with some serious limitations.

“Norm faced considerable personal insult from his contemporaries at other universities in Canada over this debate. However, over the past 40-plus years, almost every physical education program in Canada and many in the USA have come around to adopting a kinesiology model for their own programs and have changed their names to reflect this.”

Ashton tells some of the story himself in autobiographical files he prepared during his retirement:

“I believe every institution had a course called Kinesiology and Applied Anatomy. This was the only reference to kinesiology that I found. Interestingly, when we changed the program to kinesiology we had to find a new rubric for our course. I'm not sure where the name came from, either I had read it somewhere or made it up, but we adopted the term ‘biomechanics’. Recently Bob Norman, our first appointee in the area, told me that when he got here he had never heard the term before. In fact in the first calendar in which the course appeared some proofreader, obviously equally unfamiliar with the term altered it  to read ‘biochemistry’. Making change wasn't always easy.”

Ashton retired in 1993 and was given the title Honorary Member of the University. In 2007, in addition, he received an honorary degree.

Norm Ashton is survived by his wife, Jan, as well as children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A memorial service was held Saturday, January 23 at at the Erb & Good Funeral Home, Kitchener. Obituary