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Who is considered one of Canada's most prominent surgeon, physical educator, and sculptor during the 20th century?

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Robert Tait McKenzie (26 May 1867 - 28 April 1938) – renowned athlete, physician, surgeon, soldier, physical educator, and sculptor – was born in Almonte, (now part of the Town of Mississippi Mills), Lanark County, Ontario. His father was the Reverend William McKenzie a Presbyterian Minister, and mother Catherine Shiells McKenzie. William had immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1858 to become minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Almonte. His father died when he was nine years old and made a deep impression on the young Robert, creating within him a strong sense of community spirit.

After completing local High School in 1883 and attending the Collegiate Institute in Ottawa (Ontario), he entered in 1885 McGill University in Montréal (Québec) as a pre-med student. As a child, McKenzie did not show any interest in physical activity but later found his appreciation and attraction of athletics during his years at McGill. This is where he was acknowledged as an all-round gymnastic champion, a Canadian Intercollegiate high jump champion, ran hurdles, boxed, played football, and his specialities were swimming and fencing. McKenzie found that his athletic abilities focused on sports that did not solely require strength or stamina, but rather skill, coordination, and practice. He graduated in Art in 1889 and upon graduating as a medical doctor in 1892, he began his internship at Montreal General Hospital. McKenzie was convinced of the need for preventive medicine and with the belief that training and conditioning of the body would prevent disease, physical breakdown and accidents, over the years he pioneered physical fitness programs in Canada.

Dr. McKenzie continued with sports, becoming a gymnastic instructor and was appointed the first ever Medical Director of Physical Training at McGill (or at a Canadian university), while also holding positions as Instructor of Physical Culture, lecturer in anatomy and specialist in orthopedic surgery. He had also developed an active medical practice in Montréal. The following year, he worked as ship's surgeon for a steamship company working the Montréal to Liverpool route. In 1894, he was asked by the Governor-General of Canada, the Earl of Aberdeen (1847-1934) to work as a swimming instructor for his two sons while staying at his summer house in Montréal and during his fifteen months stay with the vice-regal household, he also accompanied the Earl's sons on a visit to Scotland, England and France (he was fluent in French). In 1896, McKenzie returned to private medical practice in Montréal and two years later, he undertook pioneering work in the treatment of sclerosis. Since his time as a faculty member of McGill, he used art as an escape from the stress of the practice of medicine. He first turned to watercolour sketching but his real interest was in sculpture as he became fascinated with the anatomy of athletes, their musculature and facial expressions. 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 known as "Violent Effort, Breathlessness, Fatigue and Exhaustion." Shortly after, he produced two of his famous early works – "The Sprinter" (1902) and "The Athlete" (1903). In 1904, he accepted a permanent faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia which gave him the opportunity to develop, test and implement his theories on health and athletics. While teaching there, his work as a sculptor became well known and in 1910 was first commissioned by the University to create an 8 foot bronze of "The Youthful Franklin." Two years later he was to create "The Joy of Effort" – one of his most widely recognized pieces. The 46-inch bronze relief medallion was set into the wall of the Stockholm Stadium for the 1912 Olympic Games. He was awarded the King's Medal by the King of Sweden Gustavus V for his achievements in the field of athletic sculpture.

In 1915, with the outbreak of the Great War, McKenzie travelled to England and tried to enlist with the Canadian Army Medical Corps but after encountering too many delays and red tape, he joined instead the British Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant. Although he had applied for attachment to the Physical Training Headquarters Staff, he was first sent on a course of physical education. This was quickly rectified when his colonel realized that the man he was training had written the textbook and was made an inspector of training and toured training camps and hospitals and helped develop training courses to raise recruits to basic fitness levels. He then served with the Royal Army Medical Corps and became involved in surgery, rehabilitation and physiotherapy work with wounded soldiers which led to his promotion to the rank of Major in command of the Heaton Park Medical Command Depot. His greatest achievement was in development of the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen by setting up a pilot scheme in Manchester to establish and dissipate the techniques and programmes to be used throughout the country. His methods and inventions for restoring and rehabilitating wounded soldiers laid a foundation for modern physiotherapy practices, including prosthetic development and working tirelessly assisting fellow surgeon Dr. William L. Clark in advancing plastic surgery practices for those who had been disfigured by war. McKenzie was transferred for service in Canada in the spring of 1917. His responsibility was to report on the state of the hospitals involved with reconstruction work and ensure the necessary equipment was available. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, McKenzie was encouraged to return to America to work with the office of the Surgeon-General of the U.S. Army to pass on his knowledge. He was soon enlisted in overseeing the introduction of a system of reclamation for America's wounded. This would occupy him for the latter half of 1917. In 1918 he would return to Canada to complete the work begun the previous spring. He was appointed Inspector of Convalescent Hospitals for the Canadian Medical Service under the Military Hospitals Commission before going on to France to put his skills to the service of the French. During the war he had actively documented his methods and in 1918 he published "Reclaiming the Maimed" and a "Handbook of Physical Therapy." Both would be adopted as official manuals by authorities in England, Canada, and the U.S. After the war, McKenzie returned to his position at the University of Pennsylvania and remained there until he decided to retire in 1930. The following year, McKenzie received an invitation from the Mayor of Almonte to return to his hometown to participate in the town's 50th anniversary of incorporation. Dr. McKenzie and his wife Ethel travelled back to Almonte and rediscovered the picturesque and old gristmill (built 1830) known as Baird's Mill. Encouraged by the mayor, McKenzie purchased the abandoned property and made it his summer home and sculpture studio.

Before the First World War, McKenzie was recognized as the greatest sculptor of athletic youth but after the war, his war memorials brought forth his most magnificent contributions to mankind. His work, of over 200 pieces, is world-renowned, and is displayed across the world. The largest collection of his sculptures and memorabilia in Canada can be found at his summer residence, renamed the "Mill of Kintail," also known as the "R. Tait McKenzie Memorial Museum." Among them -- shown in the photograph – is a bronze plaster of what the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada called "his most significant sculpture": the Scottish-American War Memorial (1927), Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh. In 1924 the Saint Andrew's Society of Philadelphia decided to create a tribute from Scottish-Americans to the Scottish soldiers killed in the war. McKenzie was the president of the society and the commission was offered to him which he took up enthusiastically. Funded by small contributions from Scots and people of Scottish ancestry from across the U.S., the war memorial was unveiled on 7 September 1927 by the American Ambassador Alanson B. Houghton (1863-1941). The memorial consists of two parts: the central figure is a kilted youth with cap and rifle in hand responding to "The Call" to arms seated on a pedestal; and the 25 foot frieze on the wall behind portrays "The Response" which is divided into three sections illustrating the volunteers who come from every walk of Scottish life, a recruiting party and finally a pipe band. The full-sized bronzed plaster models of "The Call" and "The Recruiting Party" are an exact replica of the bronze original and are the only copies of the war memorial. Between October 1993 and September 1996, this painted plaster version, retained by the artist, and held by the Mill of Kintail received conservation treatment by the Canadian Conservation Institute.

Dr. McKenzie died suddenly of a heart attack at his home at the age of 70 in Philadelphia. In his will McKenzie ordered that he was to be buried in Canada, but his heart was to be removed and buried in Scotland. Despite his expressed wish for his heart to be buried in front of the Scottish-American War Memorial in Edinburgh, this request was denied by the city of Edinburgh, but his heart was subsequently buried at the nearby St. Cuthbert's churchyard. Dr. R. Tait McKenzie is buried alongside his "precious wife" Ethel O'Neil at Saint Peter's Episcopal Churchyard in Philadelphia. In 1940, a posthumous memorial exhibition of his works was held at the University of Pennsylvania. Robert Tait McKenzie was one of Canada's best-known artists of his time and is a recognized National Historic Figure. The "Tait McKenzie Centre" – a sports facility that opened in 1966 – is named after him at York University, Toronto. There are numerous plaque erected in his honour on site of the Mill of Kintail Conservation Area in Almonte. The "R. Tait McKenzie Public School" in his hometown of Almonte was named in his honour in 1998. In 2000 Dr. McKenzie was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame for his influences on the Games.

On this day, 26 May 2022, we commemorate the 155th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie – athlete, physician, surgeon, soldier, physical educator, and sculptor – in Lanark County, Ontario and mark more than 94 years since the unveiling of the Scottish-American War Memorial considered to be his most significant sculpture.

André M. Levesque

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