History of TOPS

Since TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) was founded in 1948, we have made some significant achievements and grown both as an organization and as a family. We're looking forward and planning for the future, but we always want to remember our past!

The idea of meeting with other dieters for mutual encouragement occurred to Esther S. Manz about three years after the birth of her fifth child. She discussed the idea with a physician (actually, her daughter's OB-GYN), who encouraged her to carry it out while Esther strived to lose the "baby weight." 

Our Story

TOPS was born around a kitchen table (wouldn't you know it!) in 1948 when Mrs. Manz, two friends, and her cousin's wife, gathered with others at the "Beulah Brinton Social Center" in Milwaukee. Their desire was to support each other to thinner figures and better health.

After the Milwaukee Journal published an article about the new group, Esther recalled, "So many people showed up that we could hardly get through the crowd to our meeting room!"

From the very beginning, TOPS decided that anyone who succeeded in losing a lot of weight deserved royal treatment. Within a year, TOPS crowned its first queen. Queens have been crowned in every year since then—and kings, too—since 1957.

By the end of TOPS' second year, Esther Manz was riding the bus to TOPS chapters all over town, carrying the TOPS scale and records in a shopping bag. "No wonder I lost weight!" she said. To help keep all these new members informed, she started publishing a modest mimeographed paper called TOPS Club News.

Soon TOPS was earning headlines everywhere and receiving letters from as far away as England.

On April 9, 1951, Esther's story appeared in LIFE magazine. By then, TOPS had grown to about 2,500 members in Wisconsin, Michigan, California, Massachusetts, Illinois and South Dakota. Esther's telephone rang constantly from 6 in the morning until 11 at night. Her calls disrupted the party line, and TOPS had to get its first business phone. TOPS ended the year with chapters in every state and a total membership of over 6,000. In 1952, TOPS was incorporated, and in 1953, headquarters moved to rented offices at Kinnickinnic and Lincoln Avenues in Milwaukee.

Celebrating its sixth anniversary in 1955, TOPS held its first national convention (the forerunner of today's International Recognition Days) in Chicago, coinciding with the American Medical Association's convention. From the very beginning, the AMA had helped TOPS establish the sound medical ties that made it so different from commercial weight-loss organizations. The first KOPS (Keep Off Pounds Sensibly) graduation was held at this 1955 convention.

In 1955, TOPS' first Canadian chapter was chartered in Hamilton, Ontario.

In 1962, TOPS moved into a building on South 27th Street in Milwaukee —but within two years, TOPS had outgrown that structure. A new TOPS headquarters was constructed at 4575 South Fifth Street and dedicated in 1965. The bricks for the building were purchased by the members. With several additions, it now comprises 48,000 square feet and is the home TOPS occupies today.

Esther S. Manz had long dreamed of a research program to help find causes and remedies for the problems of overweight. In 1966, thanks to members' contributions, this dream came true with the establishment of the TOPS Club, Inc. Obesity and Metabolic Research Program. By 1971, more than 200 TOPS members had participated in its short-term inpatient studies in Milwaukee. These studies have expanded and continue to this day.

Another longtime dream came true in 1975, when 26 women gathered for the first TOPS retreat. Esther saw retreat as a time for members to receive motivation in their battle with overweight.

In 1980, TOPS published a monograph on nutrition based on a dietary food exchange system. That year, TOPS' first 25-year KOPS were honored. Today it is not uncommon to honor KOPS of 40 years and more.

In 1991, Esther S. Manz retired as president after 43 years of dedicated service. Betty Domenoe assumed TOPS' presidency at that time. That same year, Dr. Ahmed Kissebah, a recognized expert in obesity, was named as the new director of TOPS' Obesity and Metabolic Research Program. He succeeded Dr. Ronald Kalkhoff, who had recently passed away.

In 1994, the Medical College of Wisconsin dedicated the TOPS Center for Obesity and Metabolic Research to recognize the $4.5 million that TOPS Club, Inc. had donated for medical research. The Center includes the Esther S. Manz Laboratory and the Dr. Ronald K. Kalkhoff Library. Current donations to obesity research exceed $8.5 million.

Mrs. Domenoe retired in 2002 and was succeeded by LaNeida Herrick, who helped streamline TOPS to complete its entry into the 21st Century. During her leadership, the printing of TOPS News was totally automated and printed in full color, TOPS massive database was computerized and made available for Field Staff to serve members more completely and quickly, and the first TOPS Retreat Cruise was offered. She retired in 2004. Though her years of service were not many, her contribution to the future of TOPS is substantial.

Barbara Cady was elected president in 2005 after LaNeida retired. During Barb's tenure, at least three independent scientific studies were published proving that TOPS is just as effective as commercial weight-loss programs but costs just a fraction of what these programs charge. Online outreach efforts expanded under Barb's leadership, and more support is available than ever before—and that support is here for you 24/7. While in-person meetings are still the heart of the organization, TOPS completely overhauled its members' website twice, began offering online-only memberships in 2014, launched its first smart phone app in 2016, and can now be found on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.

In 2018, TOPS celebrated 70 years of service, having helped millions of people to take off and keep off pounds sensibly since its inception in 1948. During our anniversary year, TOPS marked another milestone, with President Barb Cady retiring on February 28 and handing the reins to Rick Danforth, our first male president and only the fifth person to lead the organization in 70 years. With the support of TOPS, and our research partners in the study of the genetics of obesity, the promise for a safe, scientific way to prevent, manage and treat obesity glows brightly.

TOPS Facts

1948 — Esther Manz and three homemakers start TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly).

1951 — TOPS boasts its first KOPS (a member who has reached weight goal and can Keep Off Pounds Sensibly).

1952 — TOPS was incorporated.

1955 —TOPS goes international with first Canadian chapter.

1966 — Thanks to members' contributions, this dream came true with the establishment of the TOPS Club, Inc. Obesity and Metabolic Research Program.

1975 — 26 women gathered for the first TOPS retreat.

1994 — The TOPS Center for Obesity and Metabolic Research is dedicated at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

2010 — An independent study published in the journal Obesity followed 42,500 members over three years and found TOPS works as well as commercial weight-loss programs—but costs less.

2013 — TOPS and the Medical College of Wisconsin announce the discovery of two new genes that may influence obesity.

2018 — TOPS turned 70 and welcomed its first male president, Rick Danforth.

2022 — TOPS Club Headquarters was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

2023 — TOPS was excited to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Chapters across North America marked the major milestone in all sorts of ways, and we celebrated at Headquarters on Oct. 21 with a community-wide event.

For a quick overview of TOPS story, please check out our history timeline.