The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Quiet Leadership

Written by
Amber Freeland
Posted in

Tuesday, Feb 25, 2020

Pictured above: Dr. Kenneth Cooper and retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Bohannon jogging at the The National Jogging Association Conference at the Plaza in New York 1969.  

By now, the story of how Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, founded The Cooper Institute and the Cooper Clinic is legendary. However, few know the story of the first executive director who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard L. Bohannon.

In the late 1960s and 70s, pioneers in cardiology and exercise physiology were beginning to recognize that exercise may be the key to improved heart health and longevity as the medical community looked for ways to prevent sudden cardiac death and heart attacks. 

Dr. Cooper first met Bohannon in the early 1960s while running on the beach in Florida where he had gone for an aerospace medical meeting. Bohannon, the first three-star Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force, became a powerful advisor to Cooper as he worked to establish physical fitness standards for the Air Force and the space program.

“Gen. Bohannon was an incredible mentor and friend,” said Cooper. “He protected my research and helped me establish credibility in a field where preventive medicine was discouraged.”

After years of honing his research, Cooper was ready to publish his first book on the benefits of aerobic fitness. He published Aerobics in 1968 and it went on to become a worldwide phenomenon, selling millions of copies and forever changing how we look at exercise.

“Dr. Cooper’s research will continue and it will help to unravel the mysteries of exercise physiology… I am confident he is on the right track,” said Bohannon in the vigorous endorsement he penned for the book’s introduction. 

William Haskell, PhD, professor of medicine at Stanford University and scientific advisor for The Cooper Institute, met Bohannon and Cooper one fateful afternoon in 1966. 

As a young exercise physiologist working at the U.S. Public Health Service Program to prevent heart disease, Haskell was invited to visit the surgeon general and meet this young physician from the Brooks School of Aerospace Medicine.

“A lot of people thought Dr. Cooper’s idea was radical, but they listened because they respected Gen. Bohannon,” said Haskell about that first meeting with Bohannon. “He was straightforward, honest and thoughtful. His influence kept the research moving forward.”

Haskell, Bohannon and Cooper became friends and created the National Jogging Association in 1968 (later known as the National Runner’s Association). The organization, along with the success of Cooper’s book and the research it spawned, helped make jogging for exercise a mainstream activity for Americans despite objections from the medical community.

“The medical board censured me because they thought my idea was crazy,” said Cooper. “Newspaper headlines claimed that running was dangerous and there would be millions of dead joggers in the streets.” 

In the 1970s, nearly 25 million Americans began running for exercise. Today over 60 million Americans run or jog for exercise and over 110 million walk regularly for fitness.

Cooper left the Air Force and moved to Dallas where he founded The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research on June 22, 1970. Six months later, he opened the Cooper Clinic to patients and started his research database to definitively prove that exercise is the best preventive medicine. A retired Bohannon joined him in 1971 as the first executive director. 

A native Dallasite, Bohannon helped Cooper establish himself in the community. Born in Dallas in 1907, he graduated from James Madison High School, studied pre-med at Southern Methodist University, earned his doctor of medicine from Baylor University College of Medicine, and completed ROTC training in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Following 1933 internship at Parkland Hospital, Bohannon served in the Civilian Conservation Corps. SMU honored him as a Distinguished Alumni in 1968. 

While Cooper battled public misconceptions about exercise and preventive health, Bohannon established the day-to-day operations and research work of the institute.

“He was the grounding influence of The Cooper Institute, bringing much-needed organizational infrastructure and management learned through decades of military leadership,” said Haskell.

Bohannon’s unshakeable faith in Cooper’s work brought stability and trust to the organization.

In 1973, he sought funding to create a digital data collection system. Up to this point, Cooper’s research data existed on index cards in a shoe box, but it was time to modernize the system for future research. The Moody Foundation of Galveston agreed with this forward-thinking approach in a generous grant to computerize the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study (CCLS). The CCLS still stands as the largest, longest-running database in the world on measured aerobic fitness. 

“As a leader, Bohannon was admired and respected for his integrity and character,” said Dr. Larry Gibbons, former president of the Cooper Clinic and senior author on the 1989 landmark study that validated Cooper’s work. “His faith in Dr. Cooper helped people understand that this research was real and it was important.”

Bohannon stepped down as executive director in 1980 but continued to serve as a board member and advisor for many years. In 1989, the landmark CCLS study proved that exercise is the key to heart health and longevity and forever changed the treatment of heart disease around the world.

“I think he would be pleased and proud of the accomplishments of The Cooper Institute,” said Haskell. “But, he would want to see stronger support to keep the mission moving forward.”

In 1991, just two years before his death, The Cooper Institute dedicated Bohannon Hall as the epicenter of adult education and personal training. Former President George W. Bush, businessman and philanthropist T. Boone Pickens, and football legend Roger Staubach were just a few of the many supporters who came to recognize Bohannon’s lifetime commitment to exercise research. 

The influence and leadership of Lt. Gen. Richard L. Bohannon changed the trajectory of exercise research and laid the foundation for The Cooper Institute to become a viable and respected authority on the science of physical fitness.

  Read: Cooper Quarterly Newsletter - Winter Edition 2020