A Skating Surgeon: The Arthur Gaetano Keane Story

"The... modern skating figures are all interesting in conception, daring in performance, and beautiful in successful accomplishment. To gain proficiency in them one must be strong of ankle, fairly muscular, with a well developed sense of balance. Without constant practice over a prolonged period, no man may hope to enter the championship class in skating. To excel, one's physical tone must be perfect as a juggler's." - Arthur Gaetano Keane, "Munsey's Magazine", 1902

Arthur Gaetano Keane was born March 16, 1876 in New York City. He grew up in a brownstone on East 142nd Street in the Bronx. His mother Josephine passed away when he was quite young, and his three siblings (Paul, Edwin and Adele) helped raise him while his father John, an enterprising Irish immigrant, brought in the bacon. John - or M.J.A. - Keane manufactured scrubbing and blacking brushes and actually patented a brush and mop holder and combined soap-holder and cleaning brush. Through John's sales of brushes and brush holders to the city, the Keane's lived quite comfortably.

As a teenager, Arthur joined the New York Athletic Club. His brother Edwin, an oarsman for the club's unbeaten 'chippy' crew, was at the time one of the club's most popular members. 'Fancy' skating was a popular winter pastime of many of the New York Athletic Club's members, and soon Arthur found his way to the St. Nicholas Rink.

Arthur started skating 'for his health' in February 1895 at the age of eighteen, finding it "as natural to skate as it was... to walk". After two weeks of practice, he entered the Championships Of America, organized by National Amateur Skating Association of America and Amateur Skating Association Of Canada, on a whim... and placed third. He earned the most points for the grapevine twist, a figure that he didn't even know how to perform. He just watched his competitors, gave it a go, and came out on top. It was clear to the throngs of avid skating fans in attendance that he had something special.

After placing fourth and second at the 1896 and 1897 Championships Of America, Arthur was victorious at the 1898 event, with a score of one hundred and eleven out of a possible one hundred and fourteen points. In winning, he defeated Irving Brokaw - the man who would go on to popularize the Continental or International Style of skating in New York.

Arthur Keane and his competitors at the 1898 Championships Of America

Arthur also earned the praise of 1879 Champion James B. Story, who said his performance "was the finest exhibition of the kind [he] had ever seen" and offered him instruction. Perhaps most impressive about Arthur's 1898 win was the fact that "for some time prior to the competition, he had been confined to his home with an abscess on his face, and disregarding the orders of his physician, competed with his face bandaged."

Arthur retained his title as the Champion of America for the next four years. At the 1900 event, he won by over twenty points... in a blinding snowstorm. The January 26, 1901 issue of "The World" raved, "Keane's movements were as graceful as those of a swan, and the most difficult figures looked to be little more than child's play when executed by him. There was an ease and balance about everything he did that was somewhat lacking in the other contestants."

In 1902, the New York Athletic Club's journal noted, "Keane's performances conclusively proved that he has no peer on this side of the water... Keane's demonstration.. was marked by energy and accuracy, while his figures were considerably larger than those of his rivals. At the same time, his action was graceful, especially in managing his unemployed legs and hands."

The Championships Of America weren't held in 1902 or 1903, and the following year when they resumed, Arthur was in Arizona "for his health". However, he returned in 1905 to win the competition for a sixth time, again defeating Irving Brokaw. Arthur's 'specialities' as a 'fancy' skater were his toe-spins and pirouettes and his Achilles heel was the spread eagle, which he claimed he couldn't perform well because he "wasn't built right".

Arthur's successes as a figure skater weren't his only athletic accomplishments. In 1906, he won the New York Athletic Club's fall handicap tennis tournament on the club's courts on Travers Island as well as a four-man Quadruple Scull race in the club's annual regatta. The following year, he won two matches in the second round of the New York State Tennis Tournament, only to lose to a young man from the Kings County Lawn Tennis Club in the finals.

Perhaps most impressively, Arthur earned his medical degree from the University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1900, interning at Bellevue Hospital while he was actively competing as a figure skater. He went on to serve as Chief of Clinic and Assistant in Operative Surgery at Bellevue Hospital before opening his own private practice on West 87th Street.

Arthur never married and lived with his brother Paul and sister Adele at the family home on East 142nd Street in the Bronx his entire life, passing away on November 25, 1949 at the age of seventy-three. At the time of his death, he was one of the New York Athletic Club's oldest surviving members.

Paul Armitage discussed Arthur's impact on the sport in "Skating" magazine in 1949, just months before both Arthur's death and his own: "I knew him well. Many a day I gazed, in speechless wonder, on his performances at St. Nicholas Rink in New York. To my untutored gaze that saw not "the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be" Keane's skating was the Ultima Thule. He was a pond skater, glorified in excelsis. Keane's great contribution to figure skating was precision, exactitude and complete control. He was an ice draughtsman. To him, the tracings on the surface were the ultimate index of efficiency and skill. Grace, beauty of attitude or form, rhythm, or harmony to him were naught. There was an absence of all spiritual, aesthetic, and ethereal elements. His favorite costume was a derby hat and tweed business suit; in competitions, he conceded knickerbockers. In iteration and reiteration of simple and compound figures lay his art. Among these were loops, cross-cuts, bell-stars, kicked one foot eights, forward and backward, with embellishments at the apex, trefoils, hatchments, escutcheons, arabesques, heel, toe and cross-foot spins and spread eagles in bewildering repetition. These original designs, by endless retracing, stood out in grooves on the ice. The spectre of this repetitious dexterity haunts skating today in the requirement of triple tracings of the school figures. On two feet Keane developed an end-less variety of grapevines, effortless, without pushes, stops or runs. It produced the mysterious illusion of perpetual motion. Keane's was a studied art, 'cabin'd, cribb'd, confined.' It lacked joy and spontaneity. It had too much cerebration. I don't recall he ever 'let go' in a long spiral or run. He was no pair or group skater, nor had he any interest in dancing - only the conventional waltz. In essence, he was ego-centric, an individualist, and concentrated on self-effectuation - essentially, a showman. Like his progenitor, the Pond Skater, he interred his knowledge in silence and darkness. He wrote no book, no articles, gave no discourses, had no disciples. He believed ignorance in the spectators was the mother of admiration. If a tyro like myself asked a question, he nonchalantly skated aside."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.