A Great Canadian Not Remembered Enough

A once reasonable interest in food has lately evolved into a full-blown ideology, complete with quarrelling camps of rival bestselling commissars. Anathemas have now been hurled on almost everything we like to eat and drink, and the ultimate evil has now been identified: wheat. A Californian doctor named Joseph Davis now claims it is the real cause of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and of a wide range of infirmities. He describes himself as a ‘preventive cardiologist’, and seems to have at least some familiarity with real research, but web analysts of his current bestseller, Wheat Belly, have demolished his use of sources. That may not much damage his sales, however. The anxious chubby masses who devour such books have the gullibility of the perennially hopeful.

Canadians seem to show a sensible resistance to the most recent madness from California. However, we are also too apt to put up with the synthetic heroes and vacuous celebrities that the mass media provides. We need to be constantly reminded about just who were the Canadians who really made the country and the world a better place.

My own favourite example of this kind of real hero was Charles Edward Saunders, one of the creators of scientific research to agriculture, who hence did much to provide Canada and the world with the wheat now strangely drawing this new dcietary condemnation. Saunders was a complex and often surprising man, who did not initially want to follow in the footsteps of his father, Sir William Saunders, an important Ontario botanist in his own right. Charles, born in 1867. although taking an honours chemistry degree from the U. of T., soon following it with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, wanted to be a musician, and kept a passionate interest in music all his life. In his first years of university chemistry teaching in the U. S., he studied flute with both the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

He even set up as a music teacher in 1890s Toronto, but found he couldn’t make a living at it. He had always worked with his father from childhood studying plant pathology, so he went back to it. By 1910, his father, in charge at the Dominion [now called Central] Experimental Farm in Ottawa, had him made ‘Dominion Cerealist’, and he quietly began to change the world.

Canadian farmers desperately needed a hardy wheat that could survive in thin topsoil. They already had a pretty good one called Red Fife, developed in Upper Canada by a Scottish farmer. But it matured slowly, so that crops could be frequently damaged or destroyed by heavy rainfall well before harvest time. To find a remedy, Saunders had to make hundreds of ‘crosses’ and yield tests. He eventually made a successful cross of Fife with an Indian wheat called Red Calcutta. But the first result, while promising, did not reproduce uniformly, and he had to carry out hundreds of additional crosses and careful experimental tests. He tested for gluten content by taking a few kernels and chewing them over and over again. He finally emerged triumphantly with a wheat called “Marquis’. It had a rust problem not entirely solved until 1947 (the successful rust-proof replacement was named after him). But it was still a vastly improved wheat, terrific for both quantity and quality. It was used on 90% of Canadian farms by 1920, and reached almost equal popularity in the U. S. It fed much of the world for the first half of the 20th century.

Saunders used his methods of crossing strains and applying close chemical analysis to improve the quality and yield of barley, oats, peas, beans and flax. He suffered a breakdown in the 1920s, to which he responded in a very unusual way. He quite his university position, moved to Paris for three years with his wife, and used the time to study French literature at the Sorbonne. He moved back to Toronto, and while keeping up his interest in both agriculture and music, he also published a book of essays and poetry in French, that was widely praised. He was knighted in 1934, one of the last Canadian knighthoods, and his death drew tributes from all over the world, much of which had been fed by his work. Flute player, writer of French poetry, a great agricultural scientist who didn’t even first want to be one, but kept plugging away. He did come to be revered in his own lifetime, but not enough Canadians know anything about him today.