Elizabeth Roberts

April 20, 1920 - January 30, 2024


Obituary For Elizabeth Roberts

Wow! What a life! Professor Elizabeth Mildred MacIvor Mortimer Roberts passed away on January 30th at age 103. Betty grew up in Toronto, proud that she’d attended The Bishop Strachan School. Off she went to the University of Toronto where she became inter-collegiate breaststroke champion (and later elected to the UofT Sports Hall of Fame). She graduated UofT with a degree in Physical and Health Education. After graduation, with WWII underway, Betty volunteered for the Canadian army. However, women were no longer being accepted. Undeterred, Betty took a train to New York, caught a lift on a refrigerator ship across the Atlantic, and volunteered for the British Army. They gave her a choice: typing school or truck driving school. Like that was even a choice. Off to truck driving school she went. VE day occurred while she was training, so Betty drove weapons carriers for the army of occupation in Austria and Italy.

After completing her service, Betty and a friend decided to pursue graduate studies in kinesiology – the analysis of human movement. They read that the University of Wisconsin had a fantastic program. Undaunted by having no idea where Wisconsin was, in 1949, they caught a train to Madison. Performing well in her graduate studies with Konrad Akert, and after a six month visit to New Orleans (more on that later), she joined the UW faculty. She was drawn to study sports skills. To best understand sports movements, she felt it necessary to also study how gamma motor neurons control muscle spindles. Undeterred by prevailing wisdom that these nerves were too tiny to measure, she led her team, which included future husband Tom Roberts, to dive in. Thus went her career: studying neurons too small to see and combining that with the study of the movements of elite athletes.

When Pete Gogolak was the first player in the NFL to kick field goals soccer-style, Betty wondered whether this was better than the head-on approach used by all other kickers at that time. Betty and her student went on to demonstrate that the turn of the hip in soccer-style yielded more power and accuracy. Her results were picked up by Wisconsin newspapers, the LA Times, and others.

Later, she convinced Mark Johnson, then a star on the UW hockey team and prior to his gold medal ‘Miracle on Ice’ days, to be a model for the study of the hockey slapshot (and convinced her 13-year-old son Charlie to be a control subject). Both Mark and Charlie had been coached to ‘pick the puck clean’ during the slapshot so that the ice wouldn’t slow the stick down. It turned out they’d been given bad advice. Too fast for the eye to see, Betty and Tom’s high-speed cameras and strain gauges revealed that the players’ sticks firmly hit the ice before the puck. As a result, the stick flexed like a spring, then snapped back, sending the puck out much faster. This discovery resulted in more recognition for Betty and contributed to new approaches to stick manufacturing.

She also studied the basketball free throw, baseball pitching and other movements. On her 100th birthday, Betty’s achievements were celebrated with a named session at the National Academy of Kinesiology annual meeting. Betty was adored by her talented students, several of whom went on to become professors themselves, and several remained friends with Betty for life.

While passionate about science, what brightened her eyes most was being with family. It turned out that gamma motor neurons were the stuff of romance … and Betty married team member Tom Roberts in 1964. Shortly thereafter their son Charlie arrived. Charlie experienced a life of love, of science, and of a love of science. Betty encouraged Charlie to throw balls, even in the house, rationalizing that it was important for skill development. She also displayed remarkable patience (probably abetted by her curiosity) as Tom and Charlie made hydrogen balloons in the kitchen sink by mixing hydrochloric acid and aluminum filings. All in the name of science - what fun! Betty cherished spending time with her son, grandchildren and daughter-in-law, especially at the family cottage at Pointe au Baril, Ontario. There she loved scavenger hunts, coaching the kids in swimming, diving, and boating, and tinkering around the cottage. She was a proponent of the family’s annual “bad manners picnic”, where she famously impressed her grandchildren by pushing Thomas the Tank Engine through her mashed potatoes one evening.

In 2022, recognizing the increasing prevalence of DNA testing, Betty revealed something that she’d never told anyone. Her 1956 trip to New Orleans was because she was pregnant. Betty gave birth to a boy whom she gave up for adoption. She went into a funk following the adoption but said that it was unacceptable for women to be a single parent in those days. After revealing the secret, she requested a search for her long-lost son. Following an Ancestry test, Mark Landry, a 66-year-old lawyer in New Orleans, reached out and met his 102-year-old birth mother for the first time. Things could not have gone better. Mark and his family visited Betty several times in Madison.

Following her retirement Betty never lost her curiosity and maintained a sharp mind. She was adored by other members of the Oakwood community and by Oakwood and Agrace staff for her upbeat, energetic, and selfless demeanor. She remained committed to fitness, exercising seven days per week, and going swimming on her 103rd birthday. Throughout the last several years of her life she was brightened by daily 2-hour visits from her ex-husband Tom. The two shared great joy that came from talking about their scientific endeavors and almost any topic that crossed their curious minds.

Betty was preceded in death by parents Arthur Beresford Mortimer and Flora (née MacIvor), and siblings Phoebe, Charles, Grania, and Maureen, and by beloved dogs including Rory, Danny,

Pogo, and Dusty. She is survived by ex-husband Tom, son Charlie (Diane), with grandsons Matthew, Christopher, Andrew and Jonathan, and by son Mark (Jane), with grandchildren Gabrielle and Francis.

A Memorial service will be held Saturday, April 20th,2024 at 11:00am at Oakwood Village – Resurrection Chapel, 6205 Mineral Point Road, Madison. A visitation will be held from 10:00am until time of service on Saturday at the facility.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Elizabeth M. Roberts, PhD, Scholarship in Kinesiology at UW,

To view and sign this guestbook, please visit:

Ryan Funeral Home & Cremation Services

5701 Odana Road



20 Apr


10:00 AM - 11:00 AM

Oakwood Village - Resurrection Chapel 6205 Mineral Point Road Madison, Wisconsin 53705 Get Directions »
20 Apr

Celebration of Life

11:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Oakwood Village - Resurrection Chapel 6205 Mineral Point Road Madison, Wisconsin 53705 Get Directions »
by Obituary Assistant

Photos & Video

Add New Photos & Video


Add a Candle

Click a candle below to add a candle to your message.

what our families say

Tiffany Foster went out of her way to fulfill all my requests, talked me through problems I was facing, and tried to make me feel as comfortable as possible when I was a wreck, totally crushed, and I thank her with all of my heart for that.

James S. | July 2020

The professional manner of the staff made a difficult time a little easier.

Lynda R. | July 2020

Services provided for both parents were perfect, on time, and no issues. Brenda is awesome and strong!

Michael M. | July 2020

Skyler was absolutely amazing. She was so caring and helpful through this whole process. She even went above and beyond to meet with us in DeForest and even to make a stop at our home to drop off or pick up anything needed. While it was a small gesture, it was so helpful and greatly appreciated.

Brooke S. | Dec. 2020

Madison North East

2418 N. Sherman Avenue
Madison, WI 53704
Tel: 608-249-8257

Madison West

5701 Odana Road
Madison, WI 53719
Tel: 608-274-1000


220 S. Enterprise Drive
Verona, WI 53593
Tel: 608-845-6625

DeForest / Windsor

6924 Lake Road
DeForest, WI 53532
Tel: 608-846-4250