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Tait McKenzie: One of the Immortals


Tait McKenzie
One of the Immortals

By: Ernest Rivers Macpherson
January 1957

Last June a large gathering of Scots and Canadians of Scottish extraction met at the Old Mill of Kintail near Almonte, Ontario. The meeting, held under the aegis off the Clan Chattan Association, was arranged in order to pay homage to the memory of that great Canadian, Major Robert Tait McKenzie.

Tait McKenzie was a remarkable man. He was really four remarkable men, for he gained word recognition in four professions – as a surgeon and anatomist; as a physical educator; as a leader in the science and rehabilitation of the severely wounded (as many Canadian veterans of the First World War will remember with gratitude), and as an artist and sculptor. He was a soldier, an athlete, a teacher and a writer.

In the First World War he was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps and held several important posts both as physician and surgeon. He eventually was appointed to the staff of the Director of Medical Services at the War Office in London. Here he was given full opportunity to develop his schemes for remedial physical training and was made inspector of Rehabilitation Depots in Britain. After the war his book, “Reclaiming the Maimed,” became a text book both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

It was fitting therefore to honour the memory of this great Canadian who did more than his share to keep in harmony the national spirit of three countries – Canada where he was born and educated; the United States where he lived, worked and died, and the United Kingdom in which he served and where stands one of the most noble and inspiring monuments ever erected to the glory of the citizen-soldier – namely the Scottish-American Memorial in Edinburgh.

He was born in 1867 in Ramsay Township, Lanark County, Ontario, and was the son of William McKenzie who emigrated to Canada from Kelso in Scotland in 1858 and became Minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Almonte.

While he was an undergraduate at McGill University he showed promise as a sports champion and won the All-round Gymnastic Championship. He soon acquired brilliance in the medical profession and developed a wide practice in Montréal. Soon afterwards he was appointed house physician to the then Governor-General of Canada, the Marquis of Aberdeen.

As an aid to his lectures in anatomy Tait McKenzie made four experimental models of the progress of fatigue over the nerves and muscles of the face of an athlete, showing, successfully, effort, breathlessness, fatigue and exhaustion. These new techniques became the standard guide in the calisthenics of the English-speaking nations. McKenzie laid the foundations for the four-minute mile. The United States, realising what he had done in the field of physical and mental rehabilitation, made him president of the American Academy of Physical Medicine after the First War. The French military authorities followed suit and adopted his methods in their text books. Thus, disabled veterans of World War I’s “Big Three” owe him a great debt.

Some of his world-famous monuments include the Dominion Confederacy Memorial in the Houses of Parliament, Ottawa, Captain Guy Drummond in the Public Archives, Ottawa, Lt.-Col. George Harold Baker – the only Canadian M.P. to be killed in action in the First World War – in the lobby of the House of Commons, Ottawa. In the U.S.A. there are the Radmor Memorial, Pennsylvania; the Girard College War Memorial and many others. In the United Kingdom: General James Wolfe in Greenwich Royal Park; “Blighty” in the King’s Collection at Balmoral Castle, and the classic Scottish-American War Memorial in Edinburgh. There are also countless portraits, plaques and friezes.

McKenzie was imbued with a great sense of duty. “The Call,” he used to term it, and one notices this theme in most of his military monuments, as witness the inspirational lines under the frieze in the Scottish-American War Memorial:

If it be life that waits,
I shall live forever unconquered;
If death, I shall die at last,
Strong in my pride and free.

Not long before he died in 1938, he bought the Old Mill of Kintail near Almonte, which he named after the old home of the head of the McKenzie Clan in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Here he established his studio and here can be seen the original plaster casts of most of his masterpieces together with other historic relics.

The Mill, built in 1828, has virtually become a national shrine and is visited each year by many well known societies and individuals.

The Mill is now the private residence of Major and Mrs. Leys. They will always be glad to welcome, by arrangement, veterans who are interested in viewing the Canadian home of one of the world’s “Immortals.”


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