Sports medicine today owes much of its spectacular growth to the visionary ideas of James A. Nicholas, M.D., the founding director of the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma (NISMAT) at Lenox Hill Hospital.
In a brilliant medical career spanning over five decades, Dr. Nicholas has not only formulated many of the concepts central to an understanding of the body’s reaction to injury, but he has given us an understanding of how the body, as a linkage system, adapts to physical stress imposed by exercise, illness and other conditions.
Over a quarter century ago, at Lenox Hill Hospital, Dr. Nicholas founded the Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, the first hospital-based institute of its kind in the world, as a research and clinical center devoted to the treatment and prevention of sports injuries. Since its inception in 1973, NISMAT has been, through its research, a major contributor to sports medicine and its allied disciplines, including physiology, nephrology, cardiology, physical therapy, pediatrics, basic science, and other areas.
In 1960, as team physician for the New York Titans, which later became the New York Jets, Dr. Nicholas became interested in the causes and treatment of athletic injuries. Working with athletes convinced him that sports medicine was far more than simply treating a sprain on the football field.
How treating elite athletes could translate to real life was foremost on Dr. Nicholas’s mind. As a team physician, he treated bone and joint injuries; his goal was to understand their mechanisms as well. Looking beyond the injury itself, Dr. Nicholas sought the causes. Did the athlete have hidden pathology that caused the injury? How did athletic performance affect pathology? From these questions Dr. Nicholas developed definitions, which are still being used today, of performance factors in sports.
Prior to his work with athletes, Dr. Nicholas had investigated, in his research on osteoporosis, the effect of weakness and strength on bone metabolism; the study of athletes, therefore, was a natural outgrowth of his interest in how bone reacts to stress.
With a knowledge born of careful and meticulous research, tempered with a bit of serendipity, Dr. Nicholas helped formulate the concepts of a new specialty that would integrate medicine and science. Through the years, Dr. Nicholas’ pioneering studies have borne out the fact that people in all stages of life, from childhood to old age, need physical activity and exercise to maintain health.
Dr. Nicholas was a founding member of several major professional sports medicine societies, including the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM), of which he was president in 1980, and chairman of its Research and Education Committee for five years; the Knee Society; and the Professional Football Physicians Association, of which he was the first president.
For his efforts, he has received a multitude of honors, including an appointment to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. The US Jaycees honored him as one of their “Healthy American Fitness Leaders,” and the AOSSM gave him their “Mr. Sports Medicine” award.
In 1975, at the Institute, the world’s first sports medicine fellowship got its start under Dr. Nicholas’s direction. Since then, NISMAT has trained many orthopedic physicians in this remarkably growing specialty.
Over the next twenty years, Dr. Nicholas worked as team physician to seven other New York professional teams, and with many professional dancers as well. In 1986, the Board of Trustees at Lenox Hill Hospital changed the name of the Institute to honor Dr. Nicholas, in recognition of his enormous contributions to sports medicine and sports science.