Nova Scotia’s first Olympic medalist: Garf Macdonald brought home silver in 1908

Published on February 20, 2014

NEW GLASGOW – As Canadian athletes continue to bow their head to accept bronze, silver and gold medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Pictou County need not look far for our own medal-winning athletes.

In fact, the first athlete from the county was also the first Nova Scotian to win an Olympic medal.

Born in South River, Antigonish County, on Aug. 8, 1881, James Abram Garfield “Garf” Macdonald would go from humble beginnings to the Olympic stage. He was a son of a farmer, William Macdonald, and his wife, Margaret MacPhee, and would commonly be known as Garf Macdonald.

He was named after James Abram Garfield, 20th president of the United Stated who was fatally shot in the back in Washington, D. C., on July 2, 1881.

MacDonald’s grandfather, Hugh Macdonald, came from Scotland to South River in 1822 and became a prominent and wealthy merchant. Margaret, one of Hugh Macdonald’s daughters, married the prominent Pictou County Presbyterian Minister Rev. George Patterson, D.D. This was Macdonald’s Pictou County connection in blood and sports.

Macdonald was a natural athlete and quickly made a name for himself in the 1899 New Glasgow Amateur Athletic Associate Rugby team, the 1901 New Glasgow High School Hockey team and in the New Glasgow Track and Field team. He helped his hockey team win many trophies including district championships.

After graduating from New Glasgow high School, Macdonald continued his education at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania where he was lettered and graduated in 1905 with a doctorate in dentistry. He then returned to New Glasgow where he practised dentistry as a dental surgeon from 1905 to 1927.

In 1908, he attended the Canadian Olympic trials and qualified to make the track and field team and represent Canada in the 1908 Olympic games to be held at Shepherd’s Bush Stadium in London. Twenty-three nations would compete, represented by 2,084 athletes. Compare that to the last summer Olympics in 2012 in London where 10,500 athletes from more than 200 countries participated. Macdonald would serve as the vice president of the Canadian Olympics team executive. He was to compete in his specialty – the running hop, step and jump (now called the triple jump). He would also represent Canada in the high jump since the Canadian that was to perform sprained his ankle.

The only logo or marking that athletes wore on their uniforms, including Macdonald, was the Maple Leaf of his native Canada.

The 1908 Olympic games in London proved to be memorable for Macdonald, Pictou County and indeed Nova Scotia when he won the first Olympic medal for the province, a silver in the hop, step and jump. He missed winning a gold medal by about six inches. In the high jump Macdonald was not in the medal standing, but reported as having ‘gone out’ at a respectable 5 foot, 8 inches.

The Olympic silver medal wasn’t the only piece of jewelry that accompanied Macdonald back to New Glasgow. While in London, he purchased a diamond ring for Alice Bent and they married on Sept. 22, 1909. The following year, their only child, Garfield Jr., was born.

After his return from London, Macdonald remained in the sports headlines. On Sept. 9, 1908, he set a Canadian record of 47 ft, 1½ inch in the hop, step and jump. This Canadian record stood until 1930. He excelled in tennis and together with his tennis partner George Stonewall Jackson of New Glasgow; they won the Nova Scotia doubles championship and held this title for four consecutive years from 1909 to 1912. He was a natural athlete and remained active throughout his life. He won a plethora of trophies and medals in track and field, men’s doubles and single tennis and golf tournaments.

Macdonald’s 1926 professional card stated that he was a ‘specialist in removable bridge work and pyorrhea treatment.’ In 1927 his dental school friends persuaded him to come to New Jersey to practise. That year, 46-year-old Macdonald and his family moved to Haddon Field, N.J.

In later years he developed leukemia, though he practised dentistry and played golf up to his death at Camden House on Nov. 6, 1951, at the age of 70. His remains were cremated, sent back to New Glasgow and buried in the Lorne Street Cemetery. In 2010, the Pictou County Roots Society refurbished his red granite headstone and added the traditional five interlocking Olympic rings and the words: ‘Dr. Garf Macdonald, Silver Medalist, The Olympic Games 1908 London England.’ The society also presented the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame with a photo of Garf Macdonald and other members of the Canadian Olympic Team Executive in London in 1908.

Macdonald was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame (Athletics) in 1979; The Nova Scotia Sport Heritage Hall of Fame in 1988 and; the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame in 2001.


*The News would like to thank Clyde Macdonald, Lifetime Member of the Pictou County Roots Society, for the research to make this story possible*