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Robert Tait McKenzie, 1867-1938

The Boy

R. Tait McKenzie was born in 1867, in Ramsay Township, Lanark County, Ontario, Canada, where his father, William McKenzie, emigrated to Canada from Kelso, Scotland, in 1858 and became minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Almonte. William McKenzie sent for the betrothed of his student days, Catherine Shiells of Edinburgh. They had four children of whom the third was Robert Tait McKenzie. When Tait was nine, his father died, and the family could no longer live in the church manse. Young Tait's character was profoundly affected when his late father's congregation, out of affection for his mother and respect for her late husband, built a house for the young family. Return to Top

The Scholar-Athlete

McKenzie went to the Almonte High School, under the great dominie P. C. MacGregor, and for a short time attended the Collegiate Institute, Ottawa. He entered McGill in 1885, and worked his way through college and the medical school on his own resources. While an undergraduate at McGill, McKenzie showed his promise when he won the All-round Gymnastic Championship. He was the Canadian Intercollegiate Champion in the high jump, a good hurdler, a first-rate boxer, and a member of the varsity football team. His two athletic specialties were swimming and fencing. Return to Top

The Physician

McKenzie was not long in achieving brilliance in the medical profession. In his senior year at McGill he was interne at the University Hospital and a year later became instructor in anatomy and specialist in orthopedic surgery at McGill. He then developed an active medical practice in Montreal where he was appointed house physician to the Governor-General of Canada, the Marquis of Aberdeen. He attained fame in the medical world at large by his original ideas on the treatment of scoliosis (lateral curvature of the spine). In these early years Tait McKenzie took his relaxation in water color painting. As an aid to his lectures in anatomy he made four experimental models of the progress of fatigue over the nerves and muscles of the face of an athlete, showing successively Effort, Breathlessness, Fatigue, and Exhaustion. He soon took to sculpture. Return to Top

The Physical Educator

In his last undergraduate year at McGill, the instructor in the varsity gymnasium died and was succeeded by one of McKenzie's school friends from Almonte High School, Dr. James Naismith, originator of basketball. In the following year, Dr. Naismith left, and the newly qualified Doctor Tait McKenzie assumed the position, which he enlarged to include all physical training at the University.

From 1894 to 1904, McKenzie in addition to his work in the Department of Anatomy at McGill and his many other activities, was also Medical Director of Physical Training, the first appointment of its kind in Canada. He then began to create at McGill a special Department of Physical Education but, though the President, Sir William Peterson, and other officials were in favor, funding was not available. Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia offered him an opening which he realized would permit the wider authority he needed to implement his advanced ideas. Philadelphia had a population more than twice that of Montreal and Toronto combined.

Dr. McKenzie became Head of the new Department of Physical Education at Penn in 1904, and as a full professor on the medical faculty. He persuaded the University to medically examine all athletes before participation in sports. In 1931, he asked to be relieved of his duties at the University to devote more time to his sculpturing. He still lectured at Pennsylvania.

He was one of a group of five who founded the American Academy of Physical Education and he served continuously as its president from 1927 until his death in 1938. He was an officer of many other institutions and societies, including president, the American Physical Education Association; president, the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation; and president, the Society of Directors of Physical Education in Colleges.

In 1904, when the Olympic Games were held in St. Louis, he lectured on topics of physical training as a feature of the general Olympic program. With two medical colleagues, he attempted for the first time to find out what takes place in the physiology of a marathon runner.

This career lasted, with the single interruption of McKenzie's distinguished service in the First World War, until he died in Philadelphia on Thursday, April 28, 1938. The Saturday following his death, the Penn Relay Games, that he had established as an annual classic, were held at the Universities Franklin Field. In the hour of his funeral the athletic events were stopped and the flag at Franklin Field was lowered to half-mast during three minutes silence. Then the games rolled on. Return to Top

The Soldier

Dr. McKenzie served England, the United States, and Canada during World War I, as a pioneer in the physical-mental rehabilitation of the severely wounded. In 1914 he volunteered his services. He traveled to England in 1915 and attempted to join the Canadian Army but, by some official mischance there was a delay. He applied to the Royal Army Medical Corps in which he was granted a commission first as a lieutenant and later as a major. He applied for attachment to the Physical Training Headquarters Staff, but he was sent to take a course in physical education. On his colonel's discovery that McKenzie had written the textbooks on which the course was based, things became somewhat different. He was sent instead on a tour of inspection of training camps and hospitals, where he made two important observations.

First, as a physical educator he was able to report from the training camps that many men, though not ill, were not fit for service or even further training without a course of basic physical exercises. Second, as a physician and surgeon he reported from the hospitals that many convalescents were hanging about and who for their own good and for that of their country should receive medical or surgical rehabilitation. Major McKenzie was placed on the staff of Sir Alfred Keogh, Director of Medical Services, War Office, and given the opportunity to develop his own scheme. His plan called for the establishment of a depot in each Home Command for remedial physical training. A disabled colonel was to be in charge of each depot, each with a staff of disabled officers. Electrical and hydrotherapeutic equipment was provided with appropriate medical and physical training staff.

When the United States entered the war, he was encouraged to return to America to work with the office of the Surgeon-General of the United States Army. In 1918 he was appointed inspector of convalescent hospitals in the Canadian Medical service under the Military Hospitals Commission.

One of his several books written as a result of his experiences in the war, Reclaiming the Maimed, became the official manual of the United States Army and Navy. This led to the organization of the American Academy of Physical Medicine, whose members included the many leading physicians in England, Canada, and the United States. They honored McKenzie by selecting him as their president. He continued to design and install corrective apparatus in military hospitals in England, Canada, and the United States. This work attracted the attention of French military leaders who sought a means of regenerating France after its enormous manpower losses. McKenzie made frequent visits to France, which of all European countries, appealed to him most. He spoke French fluently, and helped put into practice in France a system of physical rehabilitation. Return to Top

The Scouter

R. Tait McKenzie was active in organizing the first Philadelphia chapter of the Boy Scouts in 1908. McKenzie was a personal friend of Scouting's founder, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, and shared with B-P his belief in the program of Scouting for boys. He became a member of the Philadelphia Council Executive Board in 1911 and remained until January, 1938. It was quite fitting that he should be called upon in to create the statue known as The Boy Scout, because of his own conviction that Scouting was, through the Oath and Law, a means of developing youth physically, mentally and morally into more vigorous manhood. This statue of the Scout on Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia is universally accepted as the Ideal Boy Scout. Return to Top

The Sculptor

McKenzie used sculpture to illustrate points before his classes in anatomy. He continued it in the course of his physical education to teach his students and athletes how, for example, to crouch for the sprint or plunge, how to hold the discus, or how to take the hurdles. It became increasingly apparent that his figures had a beauty as well as utility. For years he was a participant and exhibitor in the competition of fine arts at the Olympic games. For the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm he designed his famous plaque of three hurdlers known as the Joy of Effort of which the original is set into the wall of the Stockholm stadium and for which he received the King's Medal from the King of Sweden.

There is a freshness, vitality and spirit in all of his works that make them come alive. McKenzie was convinced that through art, one could portray ideals of physical development. His works were anatomically accurate, comparing favorably with the art of ancient Greece. He is considered by some to be greater than the Greeks in that he was able, while keeping the brilliance and beauty of his figures, to endow them with the essence of motion. His athletic figures are beautiful and because they are correct in every detail of construction, appear to be alive.

Before World War I, he was recognized as the greatest sculptor of athletic youth. After the war, his war memorials brought forth his most magnificent contributions to mankind. Dr. McKenzie's work is world-renowned, and examples of is work may be found at the University of Pennsylvania; Red Cross Building, Washington, D.C.; Girard College War Memorial, Philadelphia; Woodbury, New Jersey; Cambridge, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Ottawa, Canada; University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and many of them at Almonte, Ontario. Return to Top

The Husband

During the summer of 1907, McKenzie met the talented musician and poet, Ethel O'Neil, of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, while on a voyage to England. They were married in 1907 in the Chapel Royal in Dublin, while both were guests of Lord and Lady Aberdeen. Mrs. McKenzie was a source of encouragement and inspiration to him through the next thirty years, when he achieved world recognition in fields of art, medicine, physical education, and rehabilitation. Mrs. McKenzie outlived her husband by some 14 years and died in 1952. In her later years, she wrote several poems concerning her husband's work in a book entitled Secret Snow. Return to Top

The Mill of Kintail

His last years were indeed happy ones, for he purchased a historic mill near Almonte, Ontario, close to his boyhood home. There on the Eighth Line of Ramsay, the same Concession Line as that on which lay the church of his father, he bought an old stone grist mill, Baird's Mill, in which he had played as a boy with his friends. The mill had been built in 1830 by a pioneer from Glasgow and in its woodland setting on the banks of a rapid stream, could be taken for a part of Scotland. With his wife's help, they converted the mill into a summer home and studio, where they collected and placed many of his dearest possessions and originals of some of his most famous works. It was renamed the Mill of Kintail and now stands as a memorial to that brilliant faceted, world renowned figure, who never forgot his humble boyhood. Return to Top


1) Robert Tait McKenzie and The Mill of Kintail, Major James Farquharson Leys, (1955) Ottawa*
2) R. Tait McKenzie, The Sculptor of Athletes, Kozar, Andrew J., (1975) Knoxville, TN
3) "The Boy Scout", Story of the McKenzie Statue, Turner Moon, (1977) Philadelphia, PA*
4) The Joy of Effort, A Biography of R. Tait McKenzie, Jean S. McGill, (1980) Toronto
5) Robert Tait McKenzie (1867 - 1938) Sculpture Of Athletes, Richard Grayburn, (1988) Calgary
6) The Sport Sculpture of R. Tait McKenzie, Andrew J. Kozar, (1992) Champaign, IL

* courtesy of the Cradle of Liberty Council, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1085

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