Rust scientist remembered for pioneering work

It’s been more than 90 years since her breakthrough discovery, but it’s not too late to remember Margaret Newton, the first Canadian woman to earn a PhD in agriculture.

Newton was honoured July 17 when an official Government of Canada plaque was unveiled in Portage la Prairie, Man., to commemorate her pioneering research into wheat stem rust.

“Our government is proud to recognize Dr. Margaret Newton, whose discoveries on the nature of wheat rust fungus ended the serious threat of this disease to Canadian farmers and the Canadian economy,” said MP Brian Pallister, who attended the ceremony along with Newton’s relatives and representatives from grain research centres.

Newton was also inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame July 17.

The two latest honours add to a long list of accolades for Newton, who died in Victoria in 1971.

For her work on cereal crop rusts, Newton became in 1942 the second woman elected to the Royal Society of Canada. In 1948 she was awarded the Society’s Flavelle Medal for contributions to biology.

However, considering her record and the fact that she is also a member of the Canadian Science Hall of Fame, few current scientists know about Newton or her work.

“She worked a long time ago, so there’s nobody with working knowledge of her,” said Brent McCallum, a plant pathologist at the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg.

McCallum wrote a short abstract on Newton for the Canadian Phytopathological Society, which is why he knows that Newton was “one of the founding scientists at the cereal research lab” in Winnipeg.

Newton, who was born in 1887 and grew up on a farm in western Quebec, began her career in wheat rust research in 1917 while working on a degree in agriculture at the University of McGill.

In 1916 a wheat rust epidemic hammered the prairie crop and Newton’s mentor at McGill, W.P. Fraser, visited Western Canada in 1917 to study the disease.

Newton was assigned to work in the agriculture lab at McGill, analyzing Fraser’s rust samples but only after she convinced the dean of the college to lift restrictions that prevented women from using labs in the evening.

Ralph Estey, professor emeritus of plant science at McGill who knew Newton, said the social politics of her era might explain why Newton is not well known.

“Few present day plant science researchers know about Margaret’s work,” he said.

“The female writers of her day were inclined to praise her work, whereas some of her male colleagues and writers were somewhat less inclined to praise her accomplishments.”

After becoming the first woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in agriculture at McGill, Newton took a position in 1920 at a federal government laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Newton split her time between Saskatoon and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she continued her wheat rust research. In 1922 she earned her PhD in Minnesota, becoming the first Canadian woman to hold a doctorate in agriculture.

In 1924 the federal government set up the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory in Winnipeg in response to a series of rust outbreaks on the Prairies in 1916, 1919 and 1921.

“She was hired as one of the first scientists (at the lab) and she initiated the rust surveys that are still going on today,” said McCallum, who takes part in current rust surveys at the Cereal Research Centre, a facility that evolved out of the Rust Lab.

Newton’s breakthrough work at the lab focused on the genetics of wheat rust, which was not well understood at the time.

“She found out the genetics of the fungus, which has been very helpful for future research,” McCallum said.

“She (also) worked along with the breeders to develop some of the early rust-resistant cultivars.”

Newton worked at the Rust Lab until 1945, when poor health forced the internationally recognized rust expert to retire and relocate to Victoria. However, retirement did not stop Newton from sharing her specialized knowledge with the world.

“She became quite involved in international work,” McCallum said.

“She went over to Russia and Africa and assisted rust programs in those places.”

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