PUBLISHED: 11:12 AM on Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Swimming in America
American Red Cross
It's a national favorite: swimming. We swim at home, in lakes, public pools and oceans, but, believe it or not, the art of swimming was not clearly defined until the early 1900's when accidental drownings threatened to reach proportions of a national tragedy.

In fact, as recently as 1995, according to the Karolinska Institute, 4,350 deaths occurred due to unintentional drowning making it the fourth most common cause of accidental death in the U.S.

Here in Alaska, according to the same institute study, in 2002 drowning deaths occurred at a rate of 4.21 per 100,000 populations, nearly three times higher than the national average.

Even though accidental drownings are still an occurrence throughout our nation, we have become better educated in water safety due to the pioneering spirit of one man - Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow.

As a young man newly graduated from high school, Longfellow worked as a journalist for the " Telegram " in Providence, Rhode Island covering the waterfront.

Unfortunately, many of his stories were accounts of tragedy due to drownings that Longfellow felt were due to lack of swimming ability, life saving knowledge, and adequate supervision.

Feeling compelled in a way to act to prevent needless deaths; Longfellow committed his time to learning about aquatic trends, activities and safety procedures.

He wrote features on water safety and became proficient in different swimming styles and life saving skills.

Longfellow also volunteered with a young organization, the U.S Volunteer Life Saving Corps, and shared his knowledge with other swimmers.

Longfellow soon was organizing profient swimmers to volunteer at waterfronts to safe guard the lives of other swimmers.

In 1905 Longfellow gained recognition for outstanding work and earned the title of " commodore " with the life saving corps.

He was also appointed as state superintendent for Rhode Island.

After gaining the support of friends in the legislature, Longfellow received a grant for $2,000 to purchase equipment so he could travel Rhode Island and demonstrate life saving skills.

These demonstrations resulted in a 50 percent reduction in accidental drownings throughout the state.

In the spring of 1907, Longfellow was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine. Encased in a plaster cast, Longfellow continued his work from his bed.

His condition worsened and doctors gave him only a month to live but Longfellow would not accept a death sentence and rallied back.

By early summer of 1908, Longfellow was again traveling and staging life-saving demonstrations with the help of an aid.

Longfellow dedicated himself to a nation wide plan of the " Water Proofing of America."

In 1912, Longfellow turned to the American Red Cross to accomplish his goals.

He presented his plan to establish a nation wide aquatic's program and in January of 1914, the plan was adopted by the Red Cross and a month later the forerunner to the present day Red Cross water safety program, was launched.

Longfellow himself was the first to receive life saving certificate number one and first to bear the life saving emblem.

After World War I, the Red Cross water safety program was adopted by hundreds of Red Cross chapters.

In 1922, under Longfellow's guidance, two Red Cross national aquatic schools opened for training of water safety and first aid instructors.

During this time the Red Cross developed combat swimming for the protection and efficiency of the armed forces.

Until the day he retired, Longfellow played a vital role in the Red Cross water safety programs as well as first aid and accident prevention programs. Longfellow traveled an average of 25,000 miles per year lecturing and training people to be at home in the water.

Through his many facets of communication, he reached 100.000 people annually, showing them how not to drown.

Longfellow's crusade continues today through 90 years of American Red Cross water safety programs.

Thousands have received water safety instruction authorizations, which in turn, have trained millions in swimming and life saving courses.

In the words of Commodore Longfellow," Water is a good friend or deadly enemy, after you have been properly introduced to it, keep on good terms with it. Don't slap it, try hugging it- one armful at a time."