Robert Tait McKenzie (1867-1938)
Robert Tait McKenzie was born in Almonte in 1867. His father Reverend William McKenzie was the minister of the Free Presbyterian Church in Ramsay township.
When he was only three or four years old Robert would meet James Naismith at the farm of Robert Young. They would remain friends their entire lives. McKenzie spent a good deal of his childhood and youth on the Young farm.
"On the farm the spirit of competition found its outlet in the daily task of the harvest field and in them Jim Naismith, the eldest, was the hero. Our heroes were such men who could make their team of horses pull a load where another had failed, who took pride in lifting the heavy end of the log, who could tame a wild colt, run a straight furrow with his plow, handle a canoe, shoot straight, or make a tree fall where he wanted it to lie."
Robert Tait McKenzie and James Naismith as teenagers.
Dr. James Naismith and Dr. R.Tait McKenzie at the Mill of Kintail.
The Mill of Kintail
He was only nine years old when his father died. The congregation of his fatherís church would build the family a home after his death as a token of their appreciation. McKenzie grew up in Almonte. It was in this community with friends like James Naismith (inventor of Basketball), MacIntosh Bell (noted Geologist and author), and Sir Edward Peacock (Director of the Bank of England) that McKenzie first discovered the joy of effort.
"By the time I was fourteen, I had my own birch bark canoe lined with cedar and strengthened by thwarts of hickory, caulked with resin, its ends rising to a high point - a beautiful craft. And I learned to drive with a single paddle against the wind."
"When winter came we skated over frozen stretches of river, creeks and ponds, screwing the wooden skates to the heels of our boots and binding them with straps that made our feet ache with cold, or clamping on the "Acme" skates that were supposed to stay on without straps and represented the last word in mechanical perfection".
"At school we ran, jumped and played tag and prisonerís base. Once two of us ran continuously from the school to our home at the other end of the village, but that was just to see if we could do it."
"We formed a lacrosse club and practiced on the common which formed the grazing ground of the village cows, a perilous playing field as may be readily believedÖ"
McKenzie had displayed a flair for art at an early age and was encouraged by his teacher to receive private instruction. His parents agreed and McKenzie was taught watercolour sketching, a habit he continued all his life.
Watercolour painting by R. Tait McKenzie.
McKenzie entered McGill University in the fall of 1885, at the age of 18. It was here that McKenzie came into his own and discovered the true power of physical activity in Major Frederick S. Barnjumís gymnasium.
McKenzie became obsessed with athletics and took to them naturally.
"Acrobatics became a passion with me. The mattress of my bed, hauled out on the floor, served to deaden the shock of an uncollated neck-spring, and every new trick was seized upon and practiced."
When home the following Christmas, McKenzie and Naismith gave a performance of their acrobatics at a Christmas concert at the town hall. They finished their act with a Catherine Wheel, a move in which the each grasps the ankles of their partner and diving forward the duo is rolled across the floor. The pair were used to a much larger stage and ended up rolling right off stage into the ladies dressing area.
At McGill University he set a new inter-collegiate high jump record, won the all round gymnastic championship, became a member of the varsity football team, and was also a first rate boxer, swimmer, hurdler and fencer. In the spring of 1889, McKenzie competed for and won the Wicksteed Medal.
Competitors for the Wicksteed Medals, McGill University.
Members of R. Tait McKenzie's gymnastic classes at McGill Univerisity.
Upon graduation McKenzie took charge of physical training at McGill when he was appointed the schoolís Medical Director. It was at this time that he also assisted James Naismith with the operation of the Gymnasium. In 1890, when Naismith graduated, McKenzie took over as Instructor of Gymnastics.
He opened a private practice in Montreal where he specialized in orthopedic medicine. He gained quite a reputation for his skill at treating the diseases and deformities caused by incorrect posture and lack of exercise. He was appointed private physician to the Governor General of Canada, Lord Aberdeen.
Staged operation in the Montreal General Hospital for the McGill Quarterly.
Montreal General Hospital
At McGill he was also Demonstrator and Lecturer in Anatomy. Requiring a set of visual aids for his lecture and article on the facial expressions of athletes, he soon unearthed his third profession, that of sculptor.
Encouraged by his success with the masks, McKenzie was determined to complete a figure in the round. Using the measurements of seventy four of the fastest American sprinters he modeled "The Sprinter" posed in the crouch start.
This piece was also a success. He was then commissioned by the Society of Directors of Physical Education in Colleges to model the ideal athlete. Again using the science of Anthropometrics (the measurement of the human body) he sculpted arguably his finest work, "The Athlete" from the measurements of 400 Harvard men. This piece was accepted at the Salon in 1903, and at the Royal Academy in 1904, and garnered McKenzie a reputation as sculptor of merit.
'Exhaustion', a plaster from the series, Masks of Expressions, by R. Tait McKenzie.
The Mill of Kintail
'Fatigue', a plaster from the series, Masks of Expression, by R. Tait McKenzie.
The Mill of Kintail
'Breathlessness', a plaster by R. Tait McKenzie.
The Mill of Kintail