The Joy of Effort - A History of Physical Activity
Mill of Kintail Conservation Area
Lanark, Ontario

Dr. R.Tait McKenzie


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 father’s 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 prisoner’s 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 believed…"
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. Barnjum’s 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.
McGill University


Members of R. Tait McKenzie's gymnastic classes at McGill Univerisity.
McGill University


Upon graduation McKenzie took charge of physical training at McGill when he was appointed the school’s 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


'Effort', a plaster by R. Tait McKenzie.
The Mill of Kintail


'The Sprinter', a plaster by R. Tait McKenzie.
The Mill of Kintail


'The Athlete' by R.Tait McKenzie
The Mill of Kintail


In 1904, R. Tait McKenzie accepted a position with the University of Pennsylvania. He was made Director of the Physical Education Department and given a full professorship on the Faculty of Medicine. Under his leadership physical education would become an integral part of the curriculum.

The new department of Physical Education would consist of theoretical and practical divisions. The theoretical division was designed for medical students and set forth the application of anatomy and physiology to exercise. The practical program consisted of a variety of physical education activities and was required of all students in the university. Each student underwent a physical and medical exam at the beginning of the year. Based on the results of the exam a tailored exercise program was prescribed. Swimming was also made mandatory.

Under his direction the Physical Education Department at the university expanded greatly and was one of the most important pioneer programs of physical education in the United States. One of the major objectives of McKenzie’s program was to instill in his students the ideals of fair play and sportsmanship. He set up an integrated program of intramural athletics which served as a model for other educational institutions.

McKenzie was instrumental in the formation of the Playgrounds Association of Philadelphia. School yards were acquired for public schools in the city and would afford the children a safe place to play.


Male physical education class performing exercises at the University of Pennsylvania.
University of Pennsylvania


Male physical education class performing a human pyramid at the University of Pennsylvania.
University of Pennsylvania


'Boy and Girl at Play'


McKenzie continued to sculpt and between 1905 and 1909, he had completed the Competitor, The Supple Juggler, The Boxer and the Relay. All were done without the use of measurements.

Somehow McKenzie managed to write a book during this period as well. Exercise in Education and Medicine, published in 1909, was the first text of its kind. It became a bible for those in the Physical Education field. In this book he outlined exercise programs for all ages from infants to seniors. He included a program for public schools. McKenzie believed physical activity and fitness was necessary to build character and health in children.


'The Competitor' by R.Tait McKenzie
The Mill of Kintail


'The Relay' by R.Tait McKenzie
The Mill of Kintail


McKenzie in his studio at work the on the boxer.
University of Pennsylvania


'The Boxer' by R. Tait McKenzie
The Mill of Kintail


Title Page: 'Exercise in Education and Medicine'
The Mill of Kintail


Inside 'Exercise in Education and Medicine'
University of Pennsylvania


In 1907, McKenzie was made Professor of Physical Therapy on the Faculty of Medicine and was active on the University Hospital staff as Physical Therapist. He designed the courses of exercise, supervised the student’s health, and gave training to students in public health.

Dr. McKenzie met Ethel O’Neil in 1907, while traveling to London to speak at the International Congress on School Hygiene. Ethel was on her way to Berlin to continue her studies as a concert pianist. They married soon after in Dublin. Lord and Lady Aberdeen, friends of McKenzie, witnessed the ceremony.


R.Tait McKenzie's wedding day
Dublin, Ireland


In 1911, after five years of work McKenzie completed the difficult and complex piece he entitled the Onslaught. An avid football enthusiast from his McGill days, he attended regular games and practices and was often seen running on to the field with his black medical bag to attend an injury. Members of the University of Pennsylvania football team were put through the line play the piece depicts over and over again so that McKenzie could study the effort.

The Joy of Effort is recognized widely as one of McKenzie’s best sculptures. The Joy of Effort featuring three runners clearing the hurdles, completed in 1912, was presented to Sweden to commemorate the fifth Olympic games of the modern era. McKenzie was honored with a medallion from the King of Sweden acknowledging his talents as a sculptor of athletes.


'The Joy of Effort', a bronzed plaster by R. Tait McKenzie.
The Mill of Kintail


In 1914, McKenzie joined the British Army Royal Medical Corps as a surgeon. McKenzie soon enrolled in an instructors’ training course to familiarize himself with the methods of physical training employed by the military. It was soon discovered that he was the author of Exercise in Education and Medicine, a book used regularly by the course trainers.

The commanding officer requested that McKenzie join him on an inspection tour of the training camps and hospitals in the South Coast of England. Their report noted that the majority of the men in the camps were unfit for training and army service. McKenzie recommended a program of physical training for recruits and enlisted men and developed rehabilitation centers where patients received physical therapy. His recommendations were accepted and McKenzie was given a majority. Major McKenzie was then placed in charge of the Command Depot at Heaton Park.

McKenzie actively documented his treatment methods and in 1918 Reclaiming the Maimed and A Handbook of Physical Therapy were published. Both would be adopted as official manuals by authorities in England, Canada and the United States.


Photograph of Major McKenzie. Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives.


Portrait of R. Tait McKenzie
The Mill of Kintail


R.T. McKenzie's 'Reclaiming The Maimed'


Massage in 'Reclaiming the Maimed'


The ICAA Medal Intercollegiate Conference Athletic Association Medal was designed after his return from the War.

Dr. McKenzie firmly believed in the relationship between physical activity and a sense of well being.

"The body is constructed for a life of physical activity and it needs constant and varied movement for its proper development. Anything which curtails or prevents this natural means of growth must result in preventing the individual from reaching his highest possibilities."

In 1920, McKenzie joined the Philadelphia Skating Club. Here he would sketch and observe the skaters. He had always had an interest in skating which stemmed from his boyhood days on the Indian River.


Track and field medallion by R.Tait McKenzie


Brothers of the Wind (1921-1923)
The Mill of Kintail


Ice Bird (1921) Bronze. This sculpture is of Gustaf Lussi, a Swiss skater.
The Mill of Kintail


'Three Punters' by R.Tait McKenzie
The Mill of Kintail


Plaster plaque of Lord Burghley
The Mill of Kintail


In 1930, McKenzie purchased Baird’s Mill, later renaming the site the Mill of Kintail, after his Scottish ancestry. He had the dam rebuilt to provide a swimming and paddling pool above the rapids.

The McKenzie’s would spend their summers at the Mill. McKenzie loved his retreat and took full advantage of the beautiful surroundings, hiking with his dogs daily, as many visitors to the site do to this very day.


R.Tait McKenzie stands in the studio window of his newly renovated 'Mill of Kintail' in Almonte.
The Mill of Kintail


R.Tait McKenzie paddles his birch bark canoe on the mill pond formed by the Indian River.
The Mill of Kintail


A swimming party around the mill pond at the Mill of Kintail in Almonte.
The Mill of Kintail


In 1937, at a party to celebrate his seventieth birthday friends and colleagues gathered to toast McKenzie with poems or limericks in his honour. He also spoke of his life and accomplishments as well as physical education and its value for all.

"The man who is well educated physically is not the football hero or the tennis star. He is the one who has practiced many forms of sport and who retains the memory of many of its great sensations….the memory of them remains and when he sees them done by his successors, he relives these experiences with intelligence, knowledge and intensity of emotion."

His last years were spent busily dividing his time between sculpting, writing, and administrating the American Academy of Physical Education and the American Academy of Physical Medicine. On April 28, 1938, McKenzie suffered a heart attack and died at his home. At the Penn Relay Carnival the following Saturday, at which he had long been a fixture, the flag was lowered to half mast on Franklin Field and an announcement was made.

As a sculptor, physician, educator and administrator Robert Tait McKenzie knew, illustrated and furthered the joy of effort.
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