Philip Ashton Smithells was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, on 12 April 1910, the son of Katherine Booth and her husband, Arthur Smithells, professor of chemistry at the University of Leeds. He was educated at Bedales, a pioneering co-educational boarding school in Hampshire, whose liberal ethos remained with him throughout his life. He became head prefect and captain of cricket and tennis. At the University of Cambridge, where he was at Clare College, he graduated BA in English and economics in 1932 and MA in 1935. He played sport, and acted with the Marlowe Society. Taking up an early interest in physical education, he studied privately during the summer of 1932 with R. E. Roper, a leading authority, and was immediately appointed to a new position as master in charge of physical education at Gresham Free Grammar School, Holt, Norfolk, where he also taught English. It was at Gresham’s that he developed his lasting commitment, imbibed from Roper, to remedial work for pupils with poor physical skills. On 9 June 1934, at Cley, Norfolk, he married a Danish student, Inge Ross Christensen. There were two daughters of this marriage.
In 1937 Smithells was appointed lecturer in charge of physical education at the University College of the South-West of England, where he was also in charge of student recreation. In 1939 he moved to Wellington, New Zealand, as superintendent of physical education in the Department of Education, where there had previously been no centrally organised physical education. Smithells formulated philosophy and policy and revamped the primary and secondary syllabuses, the time given to the subject, and the equipment. During the Second World War he advised the army and air force on remedial training and rehabilitation. He and Inge were divorced on 6 October 1944, and five days later at the Registrar’s Office, Wellington, he married Olive Frances Whitta, a teacher of physical education and dance, who achieved an independent reputation for remedial work, especially with women. They were to have three sons.
University training for teachers of health and physical education in secondary schools and the Department of Internal Affairs Physical Education and Welfare Branch had been mooted in 1938, principally by C. E. Hercus of the University of Otago Medical School. In 1947 a School of Physical Education, to teach a three-year diploma course to selected students, was established at the University of Otago, and Smithells was appointed director. The school was housed in a former teachers’ training college building with an antiquated gymnasium. With the assistance of a board of studies, Smithells recruited staff, devised a curriculum, and assembled equipment in time for teaching to begin in 1948. Basic subjects like anatomy, chemistry, physics and nutrition were taught in the university departments.
Physical education as an academic discipline was better accepted in the United States and Europe than in the British tradition. Smithells had to contend with sceptics who thought it had no place in the university, and he insisted on research as an integral part of the course. The mechanics of movement (kinesiology) was studied with equipment which was often devised by the school’s own technician. Smithells also emphasised the aesthetic side, chiefly through dance. In spite of his own sporting prowess, and although games were taught at the school, he attempted, with mixed success among his students, to downplay ‘all-conquering athleticism’ and the common belief in sport as a builder of character. He could ‘see no correlation, positive or negative, between character and sport’. He was a provocative lecturer, always anxious to inspire independent thought. True to his Bedales background and his beliefs as a Quaker, he stressed the responsibility of physical education teachers towards the disabled, those with poor motor skills, and the average performer. Remedial clinics were among the services offered by the school.
Smithells was a tall man of imposing though amiable presence with a striking voice. He pursued wide cultural interests, acted in Dunedin theatre companies, read verse well, and participated in early television panel discussions. He had many friends among artists and writers; A. R. D. Fairburn was especially close.
Promoted to associate professor in 1957, Smithells was given a personal professorship in 1969, but a four-year degree course – a long-cherished aim – was not achieved until 1976, two years after he retired. His professional writings were published widely in New Zealand and overseas. He corresponded at length with physical educationalists all round the world, visited and was visited by them, was a fellow of the American Academy of Physical Education, and took a leading part in the affairs of the Physical Education Society of New Zealand and community groups generally. In their retirement he and Olive lived in the Society of Friends settlement in Wanganui, where he died on 13 January 1977, survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters.