Dr. William Penny Brookes (13 August 1809 – 11 December 1895) was an English surgeon, magistrate, botanist, and educationalist especially known for inspiring the modern open international Olympic Games, the Wenlock Olympian Games and for his promotion of physical education and personal betterment.
Motivated by the plight of the working classes, he founded the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS) in 1841 for the “diffusion of useful knowledge” which included a library for working class subscribers. Interest groups called “classes” met at the Corn Exchange, the WARS headquarters, and in 1850, the Olympian Class was formed to encourage athletic exercises, ranging from running to football, by holding an annual Games offering prizes for sports competitions. Later, competitions for “cultural” events was added. Following the 1860 Games, the Olympian Class separated from WARS due to an irrevocable difference of opinion between the two organisations, and it changed its name to Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS) in order to emphasise that it was now independent.
Brookes was born, lived, worked and died in the small market town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England. He was apprenticed to his father, Dr William Brookes, and later studied in London, England; Paris, France and Padua, Italy, before returning home to Much Wenlock in 1831. His lifelong campaign to get Physical Education on the school curriculum brought him into contact with Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In 1890, the young French aristocrat visited Much Wenlock and stayed with Dr Brookes at his home in Wilmore Street. The Society staged a Games especially for the Baron and, inspired by the event and his discussions with Brookes, Coubertin went on to set up the International Olympic Committee in 1894, which was followed by the Athens 1896 Olympic Games that came under the auspices of the Committee.