Dear Mr. Mudd,
Is it true that Princeton has a mandatory swim test for freshmen? Furthermore, was this test instituted after the drowning death of an alumnus, whose parents gave the university a pool on the condition that all students were trained to swim to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again?
|New Students Card for William Humphreys ’1928|
|Historical Subject File, Box 122, Folder 7|
Princeton did indeed have a swim test, but this test was not instituted because of the death of an alumnus. It is, however, easy to see why this story would develop and create a lasting legend.
Princeton’s swim test was instituted in 1911 by Dr. Joseph Raycroft, the newly hired chairman of the Department of Hygiene and Physical Culture. This first test required the freshmen of the Class of 1915 to demonstrate “a mastery of the breast and back strokes, together with the ability to swim two hundred and twenty yards and to make at least a fair dive” This test was modified over the years, and by the time it was removed in 1990, a student only had to demonstrate that he could last 10 minutes in the water – a requirement most students met by floating.
|Dr. Joseph Raycroft|
|Historical Photograph Collection: Faculty Series|
The initial test seems to have been intended to make Princeton students more physically fit, as well as to boast about Princeton’s rigor compared to other schools with swim tests. Raycroft noted "the rule was made in the first place because swimming is good exercise and is, in itself, an art that is useful to possess.” Swim team coach Frank Sullivan added:
“…every man in Princeton, with but few exceptions, is able to swim before he graduates, thus making a record the like of which no other university, college, athletic club, or preparatory school is able to boast. Other colleges have so-called tests, but they are more or less farcical. Pennsylvania’s test is only thirty three yards and Columbia’s twenty five. The Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, and Illinois, all have tests, but they are of the same caliber.”
That’s not to say safety was not a concern. Raycroft and Sullivan strongly promoted membership in Princeton’s “Life-Saving Club,” which they founded in 1914. Raycroft boasted that this club had standards better than any other life-saving organization worldwide, “not even excepting the Royal Life Saving Society of London, which is supposed to be the club par excellence.” Raycroft also thought that the teaching of swimming in academic institutions was an inevitability, comparing Princeton’s instruction to initiatives in Germany, England, and Australia.
The swim test was scrapped along with another of Raycroft’s creations, the physical education requirement, after a June 1990 faculty meeting. At the time, Dean of Students Eugene Lowe ’71 noted that he could not find evidence of Princeton ever withholding graduation from students who did not pass the swim test. Eric Stein, an associate director of Athletics, called the requirement both unenforceable and anachronistic, especially since “so many students [were] involved in fitness activities already.”
As for the legend that the test arose from the death of a wealthy alumnus, that story possibly arose from the tragic fate of Frederick Brokaw ‘1892. Brokaw, the varsity baseball catcher, drowned on June 24, 1891 in Elberon, New Jersey while trying to save the drowning Annie Doyle. Following his death, Brokaw’s father Isaac donated $42,000 for the construction of athletic facilities which would include a gym, baseball and football fields, and a natatorium, eventually called Brokaw Tank.
|Brokaw Memorial: Tank Room by A.W. Jamieson|
|Historical Photograph Collection: Grounds and Buildings Series|
The swim test, however, did not arise until more than a decade after the pool was completed, rendering the rumor dubious at best. Further doubt is cast because this legend exists at several other colleges and universities that have or had swim tests.
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