Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

In praise of swimming: from Benjamin Franklin to Oliver Sacks

James L. Franklin
Chicago, Illinois, United States


Oliver Sacks as a young child swimming with his father.
Oliver Sacks as a young child with his father. Courtesy of the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was not a physician, but many thought he was so-trained and referred to him as “Doctor” Franklin. After accepting an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 1759, awarded for his experiments in electricity, people began referring to him as “Doctor,” a title he embraced. While he had no formal medical training, throughout his life he concerned himself with matters relating to health and disease, communicating with leading physicians in both the colonies and across Europe. He had much to say about matters relating to the preservation of health through personal habits of living and regular exercise. He became a swimmer as a young man and pursued this activity well into his seventies.

Almost three centuries later, another physician, the neurologist, naturalist, and author Oliver Sacks also wrote about his lifelong passion for swimming. It is of interest to look at what these two articulate men had to say on this topic, though their lives are separated by many generations.

The familiar image we have of Benjamin Franklin is that of the elder statesman, the first ambassador for the United States to the Court of France and the oldest signer of the United States Constitution in 1787. Depicted in eighteenth-century attire, he is usually seated at a desk reading or writing. His strikingly prominent balding head seems to dwarf the rest of his somewhat rotund body. However, as a young man he was six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular. From an early age, first in Boston, while he served as an apprentice to his older brother James and later in Philadelphia as an established printer, he performed physical work lifting cases of lead type, carting loads of paper, and working a hand-operated press. He also exercised regularly, lifting weights, rowing, sailing, and traveling widely on horseback in his capacity as colonial postmaster. In his autobiography, begun when he was sixty-five years old, we first learn of Franklin’s prowess as a swimmer. He notes that as a young boy he “had a strong inclination to the Sea; but my Father declar’d against it; however, living near the Water, I was much in and about it, learned early to swim well . . . .”1

In 1724, Franklin traveled to London under the illusion that the governor of the colony of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith, would back his purchase of printing equipment so he could open his own printing shop in Philadelphia. Arriving in London he found that this support was nonexistent. He first worked for a year at the printing house of Samuel Palmer and then found a better paying job at the printing house of John Watt. From his autobiography, we learn that while working at Watt’s Printing-House he became acquainted with a fellow printer, Wygate, who along with another friend he taught to swim. He describes a trip on the Thames from London to Chelsea taken with Wygate and others to see the college in that town. On returning he was requested to demonstrate his skill at swimming. “I stripped and leaped into the River and swam from near Chelsea to Blackfriars [a distance of almost three miles], performing on the Way many Feats of Activity both upon and under Water, that surpris’d and pleas’d those to whom they were Novelties. I had from a Child been ever delighted with this Exercise, had studied and practic’d all Thevenot’s Motions and Positions, added some of my own, aiming at the graceful and easy, as well as Useful.”2

Melchisédech Thévenot (1620-1692) referenced above was the author of L’Art de Nager (published 1696, translated as The Art of Swimming, 1699). He was a world traveler, scientist, and librarian to the King of France. The Art of Swimming was one of the first books on the subject, a small sixty-page volume with thirty-nine plates demonstrating various strokes and positions popularizing the breaststroke.3

Oliver Sacks swimming
Oliver Sacks swimming. Photo taken by Marsha Garces Williams. Courtesy of the Oliver Sacks Foundation

Franklin was in the process of arranging his travel back to Philadelphia with a tradesman, Mr. Thomas Denham, when, as he writes in his autobiography: “I was surprised by a request from a great man,” Sir William Wyndham, who had heard of his swimming from Chelsea to Blackfriars and how he had taught Wygate and another man to swim. Sir Wyndham had two sons “about to set out on their Travels; he wish’d to have them first taught Swimming and propos’d to gratify me handsomely if I would first teach them.” This did not work out as they had not yet come to town, but Franklin remarks that “from this Incident I thought it likely, that if I were to remain in England and open a Swimming School, I might get a good deal of Money.” He further reflects that had the offer come sooner, he might not have returned so soon to America (a “what if” moment in American history, but fortunately he did return).

Franklin returned to Philadelphia late in 1726. During the voyage he recorded in his journal: “This morning we had a fair breeze for some hours and then a calm that lasted all day. In the afternoon I leaped overboard and swam around the ship to wash myself.” In a later entry, he noted his determination to wash himself in the sea but was deterred by the appearance of a shark, the “mortal enemy of swimmers.”4

Of note in these entries is first, that Franklin was a strong believer in washing, another benefit of regular swimming (regular bathing was not a practice widely accepted in the eighteenth century). Second, that he was not foolhardy when it came to swimming and aware of danger. The example of sharks can be cited, as well as an admonition that appears in his writings when he cautioned against “throwing oneself into cold spring water, when the body has been heated by exercise in the sun.” He relates an “instance of four young men, who, having worked at harvest in the heat of the day, with a view of refreshing themselves plunged into a spring of cold water.” Two of them died on the spot and a third the next morning, while “the fourth recovered with great difficulty.”

Franklin wrote two letters that shed further light on his thoughts about swimming. The first, written to Oliver Neave around 1769, is in reply to a series of questions posed by Neave on swimming.5 Franklin begins his letter by disagreeing that it is never too late in life to learn to swim. He refers to a river near Neave’s garden as an ideal location. Neave is about to embark on a new employment that will require that he be on the water and Franklin advises him to “make a trial to overcome these apprehensions.” Neave must have asked about corks and bladders as an aid in learning to swim, but Franklin indicates he has no information.

In learning to swim, he places great importance on developing the confidence that the water will support you or “you will be no swimmer.” He advises choosing the ideal place, where the bottom deepens gradually, walk in until the water is up to your breast. Face the shore and throw an egg into the water between you and the shore, the egg will sink and be easily seen, then throw yourself toward the egg, plunging into the water with your eyes open and using your hands and feet “against the water to get forward” till within reach of the egg. Try to grasp the egg against the buoyant force of the water.

It is interesting to read this letter in its entirety to appreciate the importance Franklin places on building one’s confidence in the buoyant properties of the water. He discusses aspects of floating and notes the greater buoyancy of saltwater. He comments that if a person unacquainted with swimming should accidentally fall in the water, he can remain safe if he has the presence of mind to allow the body to assume its natural position and float. The letter ends by pointing out that swimming is an enjoyment that is a delightful and wholesome exercise, stressing that soldiers should all be taught to swim, and that it should be a standard part of the curriculum.

Franklin deemed the material he sent to Neave so worthwhile that he decided to share it with the public. He included it in the fourth edition of Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which came out in 1769, and then published it as “Useful Hints on Learning to Swim” in Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly periodical published in London that Franklin read and contributed to frequently.

Franklin is seated in the center of the image, wearing a light gray suit. Image: Signing of the Constitution. Howard Chandler Christy. 1940. Via Architect of the Capitol.

Franklin was instrumental in founding the Academy of Pennsylvania, which opened in 1751 and ultimately became the University of Pennsylvania. In 1749, he published a pamphlet laying out in detail his vision for the institution titled “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania.” In outlining the curriculum, he stressed the importance of frequent exercise that included “Running, Leaping, Wrestling and Swimming, &c.”6

A second document is a letter Franklin wrote in 1773 to Barbeu Dubourg in reply to a letter dated February 12, 1773.7 Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg (1704-1779) was a French physician and botanist. His French translations of Franklin’s experimental work on electricity was published in 1773. Like Franklin, he was a member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.

Franklin begins with a comment on the “specific gravity” of some human bodies in comparison to water, referencing a publication in “our” Philosophical Transactions of 1757, where a Mr. Robinson asserts that fat persons with small bones float more easily upon the water. He then relates that as a boy, he made pallets for his hands and feet in an effort to enhance his swimming power in the water. The results were mixed, but this is probably the earliest reference to Franklin’s inventive ingenuity. We also have from his boyhood an account of how he used a kite to float himself across a pond. He even expands this concept, suggesting that one might cross from Dover to Calais and slyly adds: “The packet-boat, however is still preferable.”

He also points out that swimming for an hour or two in the evening aids in sleeping through the entire night during the heat of the summer. He seems unable to resist adding some dubious comments that swimming is beneficial to those afflicted with diarrhea, based on his own experience and that of others.

During Franklin’s years as the first American Ambassador to France, 1775–1785, his residence was located in Passy, on the outskirts of Paris and near the Seine. He had traveled to France with his two grandsons, William Temple Franklin8 and Benjamin Franklin (“Benny”) Bache, his daughter’s son. We have an account of how Franklin made his way down to the banks of the river despite the difficulties he was experiencing walking on land because of a large bladder stone. There he was able to demonstrate the art of swimming, to the delight of his grandson Benny, by swimming across the river from one side to the other.9

In our day it may be hard to single out a physician or scientist who successfully wore as many hats as Benjamin Franklin. One figure who might come to mind is the late Oliver Sacks. Sacks created a genre of nonfiction that allowed him to present the story of a patient’s illness while preserving their humanity, and at the same time inform the reader of both the historical background and neuroscience of the disease. He wrote about his personal history and education both in England and in the United States. While serving as a neurologist at the Beth Abraham Hospital’s chronic care facility, he worked with a group of patients who were afflicted with sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica) during the 1920s. He had achieved temporary success with the use of the drug levodopa (L – dopa). This became the basis of his book Awakenings (1973). In 1990 the book was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film that brought him wider public recognition. His writings appeared regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. In the last years of his life, while battling metastatic melanoma, he wrote inspiringly about his feelings as a patient facing his own mortality and his gratitude for the life he had lived as a “sentient being on this beautiful planet.”

Sacks was the youngest of four children born to parents who were both physicians. His father, Samuel Sacks, was a general practitioner and his mother, Muriel Elise Landau, was one of the first female gynecologists/surgeons in England. A wonderful account of his family and education in England, as well as his life and career in the United States, can be found in Uncle Tungsten (also an account of his passion for chemistry) and in his memoir On the Move.10

Etching of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin (physician and philosopher), member of the Royal Society of London. Ambroise Tardieu, Engraver. from the collections of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Via INHA digital library.

In “Water Babies,” an article published in The New Yorker in 1997, Sacks reports that all of his brothers were water babies. His father introduced each of them as babies to the water at the Highgate Ponds in Hampstead Heath.11 Swimming was instinctive so he really never learned to swim. Sacks had traveled to Micronesia where he had observed toddlers fearlessly entering the water; everyone was able to swim. It was during the nineteenth century that Europeans learned the crawl from South Pacific Islanders, the most powerful ocean stroke.

His father was a champion swimmer and a three-time winner of a fifteen-mile swim off the Isle of Wright. Sacks hoped to be able to enjoy swimming like his father until the age ninety-four.

In the 1960s, Sacks would swim off Orchard Beach in New York. He would make a circuit of City Island that might take up to nine hours. It was during one of these swims that he came ashore, spotted a house that was on sale, and made a purchase on the spot. In On the Move, he relates three incidents where he foolishly swam in high surf and was rather seriously injured. After that he confined his swimming to slow-moving rivers and lakes. During summers he also motorcycled to a lake in the Catskills, staying at the Hotel Jefferson on Lake Jefferson. He describes the joy of “swimming timelessly” on the lake, which was relatively deserted. He was able to compose whole paragraphs in his mind and would come ashore to commit them to a yellow pad he had brought along. Sacks never found swimming boring and observed that though he was a relatively large and awkward person, while in the water: “One can move in a way that has no analogue on land.”

Today we live in a very health-conscious culture. Evidence that swimming is physically and psychologically an ideal exercise can readily be found with a simple Internet search. Benjamin Franklin was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 for his writings on the sport. His bust graces the center of the table in the board room as well as reproductions of his portraits.

Benjamin Franklin and Oliver Sacks are not alone in their praise of swimming. Recently Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College, recounted his experience as a swimmer: “When I swim, I feel I have all the time in the world, in part because much of what marks time—my everyday life—vanishes the moment I step in the water.”12 It is well to remember as is often said: “Nothing is new under the sun,” and recall that three centuries ago a “leather apron” printer who became the elder statesman of our founding fathers, promoted the art of swimming as a road to health and happiness.



  1. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography; An Authorative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism, Edited by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986, p. 6
  2. ibid, Franklin’s Autobiography, pp. 39 – 40
  3. Stanley Finger, Doctor Franklin’s Medicine, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006
  4. ibid, Stanley Finger, p. 47
  5. The Ingenious Dr. Franklin, edited by Nathan G. Goodman, The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931, Learning to Swim: To Oliver Neave, p. 41. Virtually nothing is known about Oliver Neave, although he may have been a London merchant connected with the firm of Neate & Neave.
  6. A Benjamin Franklin Reader, Edited and Annotated by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2003, pp. 139-146
  7. Ibid, The Ingenious Dr. Franklin, On Swimming, to Barbeu Dubourg, p.46
  8. William Temple Franklin (ca. 1760-1823) was the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin’s own illegitimate son, William Franklin (Ca. 1730-1815), See Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon & Schuster, 2003, p.497
  9. Claude-Anne Lopez, My Life with Benjamin Franklin, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 17-23
  10. Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood, Vintage Books, 2001 and On the Move: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
  11. This article is reprinted in Oliver Sacks, Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, also see Uncle Tungsten, p. 92 12
  12. Richard A. Friedman, “What Swimming Taught Me About Happiness,” The New York Times, July 27, 2019



JAMES L. FRANKLIN is a gastroenterologist and associate professor emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International and as the president of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Issue 1 – Winter 2021

Fall 2020  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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