University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

“Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow and Red Cross swimming instructors on tour in the 1920s

Teaching Water Safety, Lifeguarding, and Swimming Lessons

Around 1900 Wilbert Longfellow was a teenage newspaper reporter in Rhode Island when he began dedicating his life to preventing drowning.  He worked in collaboration with the U.S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps, people who learned basic lifesaving to help rescue the drowning.  He traveled the country teaching basic rescue techniques, giving demonstrations at seashores, rivers, and lakes.

In the 1912 he proposed that the American Red Cross take up water safety as one of its missions.  He then organized the Red Cross Lifesaving Service and started swimming lessons and lifesaving programs at local Red Cross chapters.  Longfellow and his team began teaching in army camps and naval stations in 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I.

The American Red Cross became the world leader in teaching lifesaving.  Today the Red Cross Lifesaving Certificate is still the basic credential for lifeguards, and the Red Cross still teaches swimming to people of all ages.

Further Information
‘Commodore’ Longfellow
Information on ‘Commodore’ Longfellow from the Red Cross page on skills that can save a life

International Swimming Hall of Fame
Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow (USA) 1965 Honor Contributor

Water Safety for Kids: Longfellow’s Whale Tales
American Red Cross Central Illinois Region and Longfellow’s Whale Tales

Current Red Cross Lifeguard Training
Information on how to become a modern day lifesaver

Details about the photograph:  Wilbert Longfellow poses with some members of his swimming instructors during his “learn to swim tour,” circa 1923.  (Source:  American Red Cross Museum [online] ‘Commodore’ Longfellow.)

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