Every schoolchild in Canada, in theory, learns about Sir Charles Saunders. At least, every history textbook mentions him; in practical terms, he’s usually given two minutes of mention, sandwiched between Ukrainian immigration to the Prairies and the Second Boer War. Which is a shame, because Saunders was a fairly interesting fellow, in addition to being one of the key figures in the settlement of the West.
Charles Edward Saunders was born in London, Ont., the son of the agricultural chemist William Saunders. He took Charles to the countryside as a boy to hybridize wild grapes and berries. Following in his father’s footsteps, he earned a bachelor’s in chemistry from the University of Toronto, then a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins before spending a year teaching chemistry at Central University in Richmond, Ky. (now Eastern Kentucky University). But Charles didn’t really want to be a chemist. He loved music. Dr. Saunders left Central U to take singing lessons and study the flute with teachers from the New York Philharmonic and the New England Conservatory of Music. He returned to Toronto to write a music column in a magazine and open a studio to give concerts and recitals and offer flute and singing lessons, to limited success.
Eventually his father had enough and summoned Charles to Ottawa for a job. William Saunders had been placed in charge of – in fact, had more or less established – the Department of Agriculture’s Central Experimental Farm, a large farm on what was then the outskirts of the city where government researchers would work to improve the produce of the nation’s farms. (The city eventually grew around the farm, yet in spite of the efforts of developers and cost-cutters in the government, the Central Experimental Farm is still existent, productive, and protected as a National Historic Site. It is the largest urban farm in the world.) In 1903 William made Charles an Experimentalist, charged with improving on various plant strains with his elder brother, Percy Saunders.
Charles soon discovered that by chewing raw wheat kernels and studying the resulting gum, he could get a reasonable idea of its gluten content, and therefore the size of the loves of bread it would make, leading to his appointment as Cerealist in 1905. By 1906, Charles had crossed Red Fife, the commonest strain grown in Ontario, with Hard Red Calcutta, an Indian wheat that ripened quickly but had a low yield, to make a new variety he named Marquis wheat. In a 1907 trial of the wheat at Indian Head, Sask., Marquis wheat matured almost 2 weeks faster than Red Fife without losing its superior baking qualities, and yielded an incredible (for the time) 41.6 bushels per acre. Charles was given the fancy new title of Dominion Cerealist in 1910 and won a $1000 prize in solid gold from CP Rail the next year. Marquis wheat fed Allied troops in World War I; by 1918 90% of Prairie wheat was Marquis wheat. Over the later years of his career Charles improved on strains of oats and barley, and created several improvements on Marquis wheat – Ruby, Garnet, and Reward – which were more suited to the prairie climate and more resistant to wheat fungus. His achievements in science led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1921.
Charles Saunders had a physical breakdown and quit the Farm in 1922 to move to Paris and learn French at the Sorbonne, a language he had taken an interest in while mixing with the intelligentsia in Ottawa. While he was there he was awarded the Medaille de l’Académie française for his life’s work. He returned to Canada in 1925, and was immediately awarded the Flavelle Medal for Science. Charles wrote a book of essays and verse in French in 1928 that was critically acclaimed in Quebec, and was knighted in 1933 for his contributions to Imperial agriculture. He became very weak and frail in his old age and spent much of his time at home listening to phonograph records. He died in the summer of 1937, aged 70.
Tough act to follow, right?
Saunders was replaced as Dominion Cerealist by a local boy, Dr. Leonard Harold Newman, in 1923. The grandson of an officer who had served under Colonel By when he built the Rideau Canal, Newman was born at Merrickville, a pleasant little village on the banks of the Rideau. He went abroad to Sweden to study genetics, then served from 1905 to 1923 as the secretary of the government-sponsored Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, an organization encouraging farmers to try their hand at breeding new strains. Dr. Newman could identify almost any strain of wheat by sight and toured county fairs across the country in the fall, explaining government agricultural policies and daring farmers to stump him with their wheat. Dr. Newman retired in 1948 and became something of a local historian in the stretch of the Rideau Canal between Manotick and Westport.
The next Dominion Cerealist was Dr. Cyril Harold Goulden. Born in Wales, his family came to Saskatchewan in the great immigration rush of the Laurier era. He took courses in agriculture for farmers at the University of Saskatchewan that eventually led to earning a Ph.D. in plant breeding, a professorship at the University of Manitoba, and Chief Cereal Breeder at the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory in Winnipeg. A pioneering expert in the union of agriculture and statistics, Dr. Goulden wrote the first textbook on biometrics (which he called biostatistics) in North America in 1937. Dr. Goulden left the post of Dominion Cerealist in 1955 to become assistant deputy minister for research in the Department of Agriculture.
The last Dominion Cerealist was Dr. D.G. Hamilton, serving from 1955 until the post was abolished in 1959 when the offices of the Central Experimental Farm were almost totally redistributed into the Department of Agriculture. Hamilton was born in Fredericton and studied at Macdonald College in Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue (now a campus of McGill) and UWisconsin. He joined the Cereal division of the Farm in 1938, left to serve in the Royal Canadian Artillery during World War II, and returned to develop new strains of oats and barley. After 1959, Dr. Hamilton served as cereals expert to the new Director of Research, Department of Agriculture, until he retired in 1977.