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The youngest of three children, Robert William McKay (1907-1978) was born in Macao to missionary parents of Irish and Scottish descent. Growing up in China, he was home-schooled by his mother and learned to speak Cantonese as well as English, although he eventually came to forget much of the former. As a boy, he relocated to Vancouver with his mother and two siblings so that his brother could attend high school. Later, he and his sister, Marjorie, were sent to board at Llewellyn Hall in Oshawa, a residence for the children of missionaries. Probably during this period, the two developed a close bond that would persist well into their adult lives. (Marjorie even contributed the illustrations to the physics textbook her brother co-authored.) While in Oshawa, McKay attended King Street School (1917-1919) and Oshawa High School (1920-1922, 1923-1925). He also attended Riverdale Collegiate in Toronto (1922-1923).
McKay went on to study physics and chemistry as an undergrad at University College. There, he distinguished himself by winning two scholarships in his first year: the first Alexander T. Fulton Scholarship in Natural and Physical Sciences and the Jean Balmer Scholarship in Science. He likewise earned the Gordon Southam Scholarship for the years 1927 and 1928. In addition to his studies, McKay found time to play interfaculty rugby and basketball. In 1929, he completed his Bachelor of Arts, graduating with Honours.
As a graduate student, McKay continued his studies at the University of Toronto, completing his Master of Arts in 1930. In 1930-1931, he received the National Research Council Post-Graduate Research Scholarship. He spent this time working for the Northern Electric Company in research and development. Thereafter, he resumed his studies and in May 1934 published his PhD thesis, The Measurement of the Dialectric Constant of Electrolytes.
McKay spent the next five years, between 1934 and 1939, employed by the Ontario Research Foundation as a textile chemist. During the war years he went to work for the National Research Council where was involved in the development of the radio proximity fuse. It was during this period that he came into possession of a Japanese paper balloon, a weapon designed and employed by Japan during the latter part of the Second World War. Following the war, McKay took a position at the U of T as a professor of physics. Apart from a one year exchange to the University of Illinois, he held this position until 1973.
McKay and his wife, Mary Wickett, had two daughters. Their first daughter, Mary Christine, was born January 24, 1938 while their second, Marjorie Estelle, was born October 22, 1939.