Those were the words used to describe Frederick Matthias Alexander in his obituary in The Times of London in October 1955. A posture, anatomy and health rock-star of the previous fifty years, Alexander counted the famous and powerful as devotees. These included writers of the stature of George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley, politicians like British Treasury Secretary Stafford Cripps and academics such as Chicago University’s influential Professor of Philosophy, John Dewey. And yet today, less than seventy years after his death, F.M. Alexander’s eponymous Technique, with its capacity for a revolution in individual and public health, is scandalously low profile. The seeds for this scenario were sown in a fascinating cocktail of world conflict, professional snobbery and personal paranoia.
The eldest of nine children, the sickly Alexander was born in one of the remotest corners of the British Empire - Tasmania, Australia in January 1869. In early adulthood he was an actor. Working in Melbourne, Alexander repeatedly lost his voice during public recitals. Unable to find a physician who understood why and steadily losing his livelihood, Alexander embarked on an intricate process of self-observation in mirrors. Gradually he unearthed a series of remarkable discoveries about his anatomy and its relationship to his previously undiscovered postural habits. Realizing he had stumbled on a finding of worth, he began offering voice lessons to the general public.
By 1904 Alexander had moved from Melbourne to London, then undeniably the world’s greatest city. Over the course of the next three and a half decades his professional skill, force of personality and penmanship of four books made Alexander the preeminent and recognized postural health expert. His highly practical method of improving health, mobility and productivity by re-learning how to sit, stand and move habitually became renowned and hugely in demand. Encouraged to recognize the significance of his discoveries, Alexander started a training course for teachers of his technique as well as a school, based on the technique’s principles, in southern England. He even won over certain sections of the medical profession. In May 1937 a letter appeared in the influential British Medical Journal, signed by nineteen eminent doctors, recommending that the Alexander Technique be included in the training curriculum of all physicians.
However, in July 1940 and with the seemingly imminent invasion of Britain by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Alexander left for America. He had commuted between Britain and the U.S. regularly in the decade between 1914 and 1924 in order to teach, lecture and market. However, the wartime ship voyage to America and, more importantly, the decision to return across the Atlantic would prove consequential.
Virtually all of the British-based teachers of the technique were involved full-time with Britain’s war effort for almost six years. The few women instructors that were available had scant resources and precious few clients. Austere food rationing, the effects of German blitz bombing and a bankrupted Britain would curtail demand as well as supply for several years after the end of the Second World War. By contrast Britain’s loss turned out to be America’s gain. Many professional Americans in New York, Boston and elsewhere benefited from Alexander’s presence in their country. His services, as well as that of his younger brother A.R. whom Alexander had trained, were much in demand. This rapid and encouraging progress in the U.S. was completely halted in its nascent tracks by Alexander’s curious decision to return to Britain in July 1943. This was a mere three years after arriving in the world’s most affluent and receptive country to his ideas.
An even greater impediment to the development of his technique was Alexander’s educational background. Notwithstanding his status as the posture expert on both sides of the Atlantic, Alexander was not a qualified physician. The resulting mix of snobbery and fear manifested towards him from the medical establishment, together with his corresponding mistrust of most physicians, would have profound implications for the future of his technique. Despite the encouragement of prominent supporters and benefactors such as Dewey, Alexander ultimately proved unwilling to open up his ideas and methods to independent research and empirical testing. This decision fueled the suspicion among his critics that Alexander was a charlatan. Some years after his death many of his concepts would be vindicated when Dr. Wilfred Barlow’s research as well as later large-scale, randomized medical trials began to scientifically support the efficacy of Alexander’s work.
In the meantime Alexander became sensitive to the point of paranoia, as exemplified by three telling episodes. The first was that he became convinced, without cause, that two of his most loyal and talented lieutenants, the aforementioned Wilfred Barlow M.D. and Patrick Macdonald were conspiring against him. The resulting split from both men resulted in a schism within the Alexander Technique community which lives on to this day. The second manifested itself in Alexander’s deeply injudicious decision to sue a South African government sponsored publication, Manpower, for libel. Despite his legal victory, the case and its appeal consumed copious amounts of Alexander’s time, money and energy in the final decade of his life; precious years which should have been devoted to fostering credibility, succession and legacy. Instead and thirdly, Alexander’s Will left control of his Estate to his last surviving sibling, Beaumont, a conman whose only interest in the Alexander Technique was how much money it could generate for Beaumont himself.
If ‘genius’ can be defined as someone who alone devises a practical system for materially improving human health and functioning on a mass scale, then Alexander was indeed a rare genius. He was also human and flawed. The strength of character which refused to accept that habitual pain and stress had to be endured was the same strength of character that refused to believe any research or successors were worthy of his legacy. Sometimes in life our greatest strength is also our most glaring weakness. This truism was never more true than in the remarkable life of F.M. Alexander.