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Margaret Newton and Her War with Wheat Rust

For the week of Monday April 17, 2006

On April 20, 1887, Dr. Margaret Newton, an exceptional scientist and a trailblazing woman whose work in plant pathology helped prevent the destruction of Canadian crops by wheat rust was born.

Wheat rust
Wheat rust
© Manitoba Agriculture

In 1916, an epidemic of wheat stem rust destroyed more than half of Canada’s wheat, about 30 million bushels, devastating the Canadian economy. No one understood the nature of wheat rust or how to prevent another disastrous epidemic. Consequently, plant pathologists, including those at Macdonald College (McGill University) where Dr. Newton was an undergraduate student in agricultural science, refocused their efforts to fight this agricultural enemy.

Dr. Newton had initially begun her education at McMaster University studying art, but soon after she followed her four siblings in attending Macdonald College, where, in 1918, she became the first woman to receive a degree in agricultural science. She received her Masters in 1919 and later became the first Canadian woman to receive a PhD in agricultural science.

While an undergraduate student in 1917, Dr. Newton worked with Professor W.P. Fraser, one of the first Canadians to specialize in rust diseases and developed a keen interest in wheat rust.

Dr. Charles Saunders, Dominion Cerealist at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa and developer of Marquis wheat, was so taken with Dr. Newton’s work that he invited her to work on his breeding projects after she finished her degree. She declined in favor of pursuing a career combating wheat rust. Dr. Saunders gave her Marquis wheat to use in her studies, resulting in her path-breaking discovery that there were many kinds, or “races,” of wheat rust. This breakthrough contributed to the development of rust-resistant grains.

In 1925, Dr. Newton began working at the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory in Winnipeg, where she worked until illness forced her to retire in 1945.

Margaret Newton
Margaret Newton
© The Royal Society of Canada
Dr. Newton had an exceptionally long and well-acclaimed career. Her meticulous research advanced our understanding of wheat rust, particularly wheat stem rust, and made possible the engineering of rust-resistant grains. This innovation gave Canadians the means to control wheat rust, making it possible to prevent another epidemic. Furthermore, her work with the genetic inheritance of rust resistance earned her international acclaim and the respect of her male colleagues.

Dr. Newton was the first woman to receive the Flavelle medal and the second woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Margaret Newton was designated a National Historic Person in 1996 for her contributions to science.

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