In the early years of the Twentieth Century the townsfolk of Antigonish, Nova Scotia would often see pre-medical student Ronald J. MacDonald nonchalantly running past horse drawn wagons and carriages on the highways surrounding their town. “What a grand doctor he’ll make”, the old folk said. “He’ll just grab up his bag and set off on the run, and be half way there before a horse could be hitched up. He can beat any horse.” (Antigonish Casket, April 24, 1947)
Ronnie J., as he was known to his friends, was perhaps the fastest physician to grace the roads and tracks of our country…and the United States. Born in 1877 at Frasers Grant, Nova Scotia, near the university town of Antigonish, Ronnie got his early running experience chasing cattle in the fields of the family farm. His father, Lauchlin “the Drover” MacDonald, made his living driving cattle and would often travel on schooners to supervise as cattle were transported around the Maritimes. Tragically, young Ronnie’s father died in 1888, when the schooner “Mary Ellen” was lost with all hands on a return trip from Newfoundland. When he was sixteen, Ronnie’s mother, Elizabeth, decided to move the family to Massachusetts. Older brother Alex became a linesman with New England Telephone and Telegraph. Ronald soon joined his brother in the linesman’s trade, but the two diverted themselves in their off hours by running with Father Scully’s gym club.
Ronnie J. showed early promise as a runner, with especial talent for the newly re-discovered “marathon”. The re-establishment of the Olympic Games by Baron deCoubertin in 1896 sparked a revival of the long distance race, inspired by the feat of a Greek runner who brought news of his nation’s stunning victory over the Persians at the town of Marathon in 490 B.C. In 1897 the Nova Scotian won the 7-mile United States Cross Country Championship. In 1898 he set a new world record for the 11-mile cross country race.
Later in 1898 MacDonald entered the newly established 25-mile Boston Marathon and became the first Canadian, and only the second person to win this event with a time of 2:42:00. The race was a bit of an upset for by the fifteen mile mark Macdonald was two and a half miles behind the 8 leading runners. With a burst of energy Ronnie surged ahead and completed the last ten miles in only 56 minutes, leaving the erstwhile leader, New Yorker Hamilton Gray, in his dust. The Boston Globe described the race as “the fastest ever run by a human being”.
Ronnie enrolled in pre-medical studies at Boston College in 1899, but continued to run, and in 1900 once again entered The Boston Marathon. Betting was legal at that time and thousands of dollars changed hands based on the outcome of the race. MacDonald put in quite a credible performance until he was handed a sponge in the latter part of the race, which turned out to be laced with chloroform. Canadian J. Caffery, from Hamilton, Ontario went on to win the race.
Despite being a Canadian citizen, Ronnie J. was chosen to represent the American Olympic Team in 1900. The 25-mile Olympic Marathon was held in Paris on a blistering hot day. MacDonald was comfortably in the lead near the end of the race, having passed the other contenders in the seventeen-man field. To his surprise he found many of the French contestants at the finish line on his arrival, looking surprisingly fresh. It was alleged that nationalistic Frenchmen had ensured their compatriots would take the top four spots in the race by providing free taxi rides.
In 1901 Ronnie competed in the Boston Marathon once again, running neck and neck with Sam Mellor, the winner, until he was forced to stop due to stomach cramps. Later that year, Ronnie moved back to Antigonish, Nova Scotia to continue his pre-medical studies at St. Francis Xavier University.
In addition to embarrassing the carriage owners of the town over the next two years he broke the Canadian three and five mile records, and went on to set a new world record for the indoor mile. Graduating from St. F.X. University in 1907, MacDonald enrolled in Tuft’s Medical School, and upon graduation completed postgraduate work at Harvard.
Dr. MacDonald went on to set up practice in the town of St. George’s and later in Aguathuna, Newfoundland. He ran his last marathon in St. John’s, Newfoundland, beating John Lorden of Ireland. In 1913 Ronnie J. married Ad Pieroway of St. George’s, subsequently raising a brood of 3 sons and two daughters. After 27 years of rural practice on the island, he chose to relocate his practice to Antigonish to provide his children with expanded educational opportunities. His last appearance at a public race was as a starter for the 1942 Highland Games (which he had won in 1901).
Tragically, Ronnie J. suffered a stroke in 1942, after which he was confined to a bed or wheelchair. He died on September 3, 1947, apparently after a seizure, and is now buried in Heatherton, Nova Scotia.
Ronald John MacDonald – Public Domain