Lesgaft, Petr

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Lesgaft, Petr Frantsevich


Born Sept. 21 (Oct. 3), 1837, in St. Petersburg; died Nov. 28 (Dec. 11), 1909, near Cairo (buried in St. Petersburg). Russian educator, anatomist, and physician; founder of a scientific system for the monitoring of physical education by physicians and teachers. One of the founders of theoretical anatomy.

Lesgaft graduated from the Medical and Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg in 1861 and remained there for scientific work. He became a doctor of medicine in 1865 and a professor and head of the subdepartment of physiological anatomy at the University of Kazan in 1868. In 1871, Lesgaft was dismissed from the University of Kazan for protesting the arbitrary rule of the reactionary faction of the University’s academic and administrative staff.

Lesgaft returned to scientific work in St. Petersburg. From 1872 to 1874 he led the first circle of Russian women admitted to studies at the Medical and Surgical Academy. From 1874 to 1886 he worked to organize physical education in military educational institutions. In 1877 he started gymnastic training courses for officers at the Second St. Petersburg Military Gymnasium. From 1886 to 1897 he lectured on anatomy in the natural sciences department of the University of St. Petersburg and at the Rozhdestvenskie Women’s Courses. In 1893 he organized the Biological Laboratory, which in 1918 became the Lesgaft Institute of Natural Sciences. The Courses for Instructors and Directors of Physical Education for Women, founded by Lesgaft in 1896, have served as a prototype for many of the higher educational institutions of physical culture since formed in the USSR and other countries. The Lesgaft State Institute of Physical Education (opened in 1919) grew out of these courses.

As a public figure and scientist, Lesgaft was influenced by the Russian revolutionary democratic movement of the 1860’s. He worked to develop public education in Russia and did much to organize education for women. In 1905–06 he opened the Independent Higher School and its evening courses for workers, which became one of the centers for the education of workers in St. Petersburg. Lesgaft was subjected to persecution by the government for his progressive social activities.

Proceeding from the basic proposition of the functional anatomy that he had devised—that is, the unity of form and function—Lesgaft considered it possible to affect the development of the organs of the human body and of the organism as a whole by affecting a function (that is, by “directed exercise”). The principle of the unity of man’s physical and mental development underlies Lesgaft’s theory of physical education. The unity and integrity of all body signs and the relation between neuromuscular activity and viscera on the one hand and mental signs on the other gave Lesgaft grounds to consider the system of directed exercise a means of both physical development and mental, moral, and aesthetic education. Lesgaft believed natural movements (corresponding to the characteristic features of each group of muscles) to be the basis of physical development. He attached great importance to active games as a means of physical development and character formation. By examining the child’s upbringing in the family and the formation of his temperament and character, Lesgaft analyzed the biological principles of heredity and childhood development. Attributing decisive importance to environmental factors, he called for the creation in the family and school of conditions favorable to the development of all of the child’s capacities and potential.

Lesgaft strove to turn pedagogy more into a science, with objective data drawn from anatomy, physiology, and psychology; however, he considered it less a science as such than as a “subsidiary branch of the biological sciences.”


Sobr. pedagogicheskikh sochinenii, vols. 1–5. Moscow, 1951–54.
Izbr. pedagogicheskie sochineniia, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1951–52.


Pamiati P. F. Lesgafta: Sb. statei. Edited by E. N. Medynskii. Moscow, 1947.
Shakhverdov, G. G. “P. F. Lesgaft—sozdatel’ russkoi sistemy podgotovki pedagogicheskikh kadrov po fizicheskomu obrazovaniiu.” In Ocherki po istorii fizicheskoi kul’tury: Sb. trudov. Editor in chief, N. I. Toropov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1949.
Shakhverdov, G. G. P. F. Lesgaft: Ocherk zhizni i nauchno-pedagogicheskoi deiatel’nosti. Leningrad, 1950.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.