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Margaret Newton

Margaret Newton was a renowned plant pathologist and mycologist, well known for her ground-breaking research in stem rust, also known as Puccinia graminis, and its effect on one of Canada’s principal agricultural products: wheat.

Dr. Margaret Newton was born in Montreal on the 20th of April, 1887. After finishing school, she qualified as a teacher at the Collegiate Institute in Vankleek Hill, Ontario and worked as a teacher for a few years to save enough money to afford post-secondary education.

She began her university career in an Arts program at McMaster University but returned to Montreal having completed only one year of the program and enrolled in Agriculture at McGill University’s Macdonald College. Not only was she the only female member in her class of 50 students, but she was also the recipient of the Governor General’s Academic Medal for top achievement in her second year. During her studies, she became the first female member of the Quebec Society for the Protection of Plants and was also a member of the debating society and president of the literary society for a year’s time.

She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in 1918, as the first woman to complete the entire degree requirements at Macdonald College. She was also one of the first women in Canada to earn a degree in agriculture. She continued her education, earning a Master of Science in 1919, also from Macdonald College. During her studies, she focused her research on grain rust and particularly its effect on wheat. This research allowed her to gain a research position at the University of Saskatchewan. Her studies continued at the University of Minnesota and in 1922, she became the first Canadian woman to earn a PhD in agricultural sciences.

When a rust laboratory opened in Winnipeg, it gave Newton opportunities to further her research and she happily accepted the invitation to run the facility. During her career, she wrote over 40 papers on rust fungi and often assisted in the editing of the journal Phytopathology. Her research also had a huge positive impact on Canada, which can be seen in the reduction of wheat loss. Before her findings, more than 30 million bushels were lost to rust every year. When she retired, the loss was nearly nonexistent.

Her achievements were further acknowledged when she was elected as fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1942. She was the second woman to ever receive this honour. She later became the first woman and first graduate from an agricultural college to receive the Society’s Flavelle Medal.

Though she loved her work and appreciated the recognition she received for it, the years she spent in close proximity to rust spores likely led to the worsening of a respiratory ailment and forcing her early retirement in 1945. Despite the damage to her health, she stated that she would not hesitate to do it again. She eventually died in Victoria in 1971.


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